Washington Society

AMERICA is the country of artificial capitals. With the exception of Boston and New Orleans there are hardly any large cities in the United States in which the head-quarters of trade and wealth and the head-quarters of politics are united. It would be curious to trace the connection between this fact—which has no parallel in the countries most like our own in civilization and manners — and our political institutions. It is probably a natural result of a new society in which universal suffrage prevails. As each new State has been peopled and organized, it has been necessary to fix on some point for the meeting of the legislature and the transaction of the business of the various offices of the government. In an unsettled State, the particular point selected seems at first of little consequence. But in many of them, as population has increased and business developed, the place so selected has lost its importance and dwindled from a town of the first order to complete insignificance. Meanwhile, other interests have sprung up elsewhere; new towns and cities have forced themselves on public attention, and the “ shriek of locality is heard in each. If the capital of the State is to be changed, the change requires a majority vote; and how can that majority be obtained in favor of anyone place, when each one of half a dozen places pretends to equal claims ? Hence, it becomes easier to silence all of them at once by retaining the existing capital than by moving. In other countries, where governments have not been organized in advance of society, but have grown up gradually, they have naturally centred where the other social forces, wealth and intelligence, have made their strongest appearance. It can hardly be doubted that if it were possible in the United States to revert to this older natural system, it would be better for us. The complication and intricacy of our politics, great as they are in any case, are heightened by the continual multiplication of artificial capitals, distant very often from the real centres of social growth, and consequently beyond the reach of the best social influences. If the capital of the State of New York were to he “ located ” now, no sane man can doubt that, wherever it might be placed, it would not he at Albany, — a small town, not only removed by a long distance from the commercial and social capital of the State, but shorn of all its importance by the growth of that capital. The latter and its suburbs contain nearly half the population and more than half of the wealth in the whole State, and three quarters of the work of the legislature directly concerns this enormous population and wealth. Were the work done in the city itself, there would be some chance that the influence of the best and most public - spirited classes might be brought to bear upon it, and that the public might be spared the annual farce of the debates over the “ charter,” an instrument which historically signifies a grant of corporate powers, but in New' York means usually their withdrawal or nullification.

The great artificial capital of the country is Washington, and a more artificial one could not well be imagined. Without trade, or commerce, or manufactures, or even that great desideratum of American existence, a “ live” newspaper, it has been built up simply by the continual expansion of the government and the steady increase of the officeholding class. Without its political population Washington would cease to exist. There have been, within the past few years, distant mutterings of attacks upon it. The centre of population is now in the West, and the capital ought to be where population is. Why it should he is not explained, but the explanation is easy. The question is to be determined, as in every other case, by numbers; and if it is more convenient for the majority to have congress and the supreme court and the departments and the White House in St. Louis, it will certainly have them there. That it is for the best interests of the country that the position of the capital should not be solely determined by the drift of population makes no difference. But there will always he the difficulty in the way to which we have alluded; to abandon Washington requires a union upon some other spot, and this implies much local shrieking and heart-burning, which is most likely to end in inaction. It seems probable, therefore, that Washington is destined to remain for an indefinite time the capital of the country; and as long as this is so it will stand at the head of the artificial capitals of the worldIt may be interesting to glance at a few of the features of life in such a place. And let us premise that we do not mean to enter into any deep sociological inquiries, but to glance at the lighter and less serious side of life as it exists there.

Society, then, in Washington strikes different people in different ways. It is usually spoken of in warm terms for its “ simplicity,” and yet externally simplicity is the last epithet one would think of applying to it. To a stranger its machinery is as artificial as the society of which it is the product. The great central fact of social life in Washington is what are known as “ receptions.” This of itself is a peculiar and novel thing, for nowhere else (in this country, certainly) is this form of entertainment the pivot on which society turns. But in Washington, if receptions were left out, though there might be a great many pleasant dinners and parties, society as it exists would come to an end. In the first place, there is a regular day on which the president receives; another on which the members of the cabinet receive; another when the senators are at home; another for the judges; and though the house of representatives is too numerous and democratic a body to have a day reserved for it, there are certain members of it who have their “ days ” also. Besides this, the residents of the city have their days, and as many of them in the same street are apt to fix on the same day, a new complication arises in the fact that there are also “H Street” days, “I Street” days, and so on through the alphabet. It should not be forgotten, either, that members of the diplomatic corps have days of their own, which are not related in any visible or intelligible way to any other people’s days.

Receptions consist invariably of the same sort of entertainment the world over,—you go in at one door and out at another; and as during the greater part of the time in the short Washington season receptions are going on in every quarter, the general effect, on a winter’s afternoon, is that of a city in which everybody is making a hurried examination of his fellow-citizens’ houses, with a view to purchasing or hiring for a term of years. It is impossible for the least curious stranger not to speculate on the probable causes of this phenomenon, and of course the first that suggests itself is the comparative cheapness of this form of social entertainment. Economical heads of families have long recognized the fact that the “ kettle-drum ” (which is simply a modified form of reception, after all) has great advantages for those who wish to entertain without wasting their substance; and this, without any reflection upon the hospitality of the place (which is unbounded), is the desire of the prudent householder in Washington. Considering the subject in all its bearings, he sees that while balls and dinners are good in their way, there is nothing which goes farther and covers more ground than a reception. It may unquestionably be said that for a given amount of money any family which wants to have a couple of months’ society in the winter can have more of it, and on the whole of a better kind, in Washington than it can anywhere else in the country. In the United States, with our constantly fluctuating incomes and our lavish and ostentatious habits, we have not yet given much thought to the subject of living with the greatest possible amount of comfort and taste on a given sum of money; but every year the class of persons living on fixed incomes increases, and as the country becomes more and more like other countries, no doubt we shall become as expert in this matter as our enlightened cousins on the other side of the Atlantic; and with the cultivation of this interesting branch of humane knowledge, Washington will probably become a more, and more attractive winter capital. The development of luxury and extravagance as they have been developed in commercial capitals like London or New York is in Washington out of the question, from the very circumstances of the ease. Of the hundred and odd thousand people who make up the population of the city, three quarters are dependent, directly or indirectly, for their livelihood on the government, and, roughly speaking, society is made up of salaried people and their families. Now, as the highest salary, after the president, paid to anybody connected with the government is ten thousand dollars, and by far the greater part of the salaries are not a quarter of that, it is obvious that the scale of living must be fixed on an entirely different level from that in capitals where incomes of ten thousand dollars are not noticed, and incomes of thirty thousand dollars common. Hence, lavish display in Washington is not merely a needless waste of money; it is in a measure resented as inviting odious comparisons.

Every now and then the newspapers in New York are filled with accounts of some tremendous fête or entertainment, given by a nouveau riche (or rather they used to be, when there were more nouveaux riches and fewer nouveaux pauvres than now) to get himself into society. For some reason or other it. is the fashion for the society which is about to admit him in consideration of his effort to hold up its hands in horror over the extravagance which insures its success. But he knows very well what he is about. It is an investment of money from which he expects and gets solid returns. In a modern commercial capital, owing to the general scale of living, the amount required in the way of an initiation fee is very large. In Washington it is very small. In fact, it may be said hardly to exist. There is only one species of extravagance which is common, and that is expenditure for purposes of locomotion. Because of the great distances, everybody rides. But it would be imprudent to assume that the multitude of carriages which throng the streets, in a way to suggest a city of at least the pretensions of New York, are the property of the persons who ride in them. Fortunately, it is not necessary for everybody who wishes to ride to own his carriage,—though what arrangement it is possible to make for an economical renting of a vehicle and coachman is a matter belonging to the arcana of social life into which it is best not to penetrate here. Suffice it to sum up the whole matter by saying that there are for the prudent householder who wishes to invest a certain sum of money in the pleasures of a winter at Washington, the pursuit of political knowledge, and an admission to that world-wide masonic order known in Washington, as elsewhere, as “good society,” four requisites: he must have a roof over his head, and in Washington a stated sum of money will give a family more extensive and better shelter than in other places; his wife must have “receptions” once a week, at which, if he follows the customs of the place, there will be provided for the guests, not champagne, vulgarized by its association with disorderly wealth, gambling, and waste, but a beverage of the simplest character, endeared to the whole human race by a thousand memories treasured in song and story, —in other words, punch; in the third place, he must have servants and breakfasts and dinners, which are all neither more nor less expensive than they are in other places; and lastly, he must have, or appear to have, a carriage.

Such being the conditions of life in Washington, what are the best means of leading it in the most intelligent and enlightened way ? This is a question which will be answered differently by different people: it is no more possible to lay down unalterable rules for the conduct of life in this or any other place than it is for the game of whist. But to get the most the life is capable of affording, there can he little doubt that the true theory (as well as the established practice) points to the combination of society with politics. Indeed, the combination is already made, and to sever the two would be a matter of difficulty. Washington is in fact the only capital in the United States in which society is made up and managed — to a great extent — by political people. In New York, and almost all the larger cities which are in any sense centres of wealth, every one knows that the divorce between the two, effected by the causes to which we a little while ago adverted, is complete. The place is naturally a social headquarters. Not being also a political head-quarters, its polities are petty, local, and “degraded. The social and political classes are as distinct as if they inhabited different places, communicating, perhaps, by a railway at the distance of a day’s journey. You may see members of the political class in good society, and you may see members of the latter class in municipal politics; but you do not expect it, and your first sensation in either case is simply one of surprised amusement. Of course, the first impulse of every right-minded American on meeting a statement of this kind is to exclaim at once, “ But this ought not to be so. This evil ought to be remedied by the members of the class which you call good society, that is, people of wealth, position, and education, etc. These people should not allow politics to remain in the hands of what you call the ‘political class,’ that is, the demagogic or unprincipled, shifty, ignorant, and venal leaders of the mob. Let gentlemen attend to their political duties, go to primaries, caucuses, and conventions, and lift politics to a higher level.” But this is beside tire point. In considering Washington life we assume the attitude of neither moralists nor reformers, but pimply that of unaffected votaries of social enjoyment; and if you will only admit the fact that in ordinary American city life politics and society are completely divorced, and that it is a great evil, you shall reform it either by getting gentlemen to go to ward meetings, or by getting politicians to stay away from them, or by bestowing prizes for distinguished political virtue, or in any other way you please. First, admit the fact and all its deplorable consequences. These are twofold: first, its effect on politics; and second, its effect on society. How and in what direction politics have been affected may be best tested by comparing the tone of the political class as it exists to-day with the tone of the governing class a hundred years ago, while suffrage was still restricted to owners of property, and the political class was consequently representative of property, intelligence, taste, cultivation, and therefore incidentally made up society. It is, however, the effect of the change on society that is of most significance to us. This change may be put in a single word: it has emasculated society; it has deprived society of its best motive for existence, and robbed it of the common ground on which it could meet other human interests. Nothing could better illustrate the nature of the slough in which we wallow than the fact that what was formerly regarded as one of the noblest of ambitions, an ambition to be cultivated for the common good,— that of a public career,—has now become a doubtful if not disreputable calling, and the man who attempts it in good faith, and serves his country well in it, is sooner or later branded as an “ officeseeker.” Not having polities any longer open to them, people of wealth and leisure and culture fall back on society. But a society made up of people who are practically members of a proscribed class is very different from a society which is made up of members of a governing class. It rapidly loses sight of all general interests, gradually loses its political traditions, learns to look upon politics as an unclean thing, concentrates its attention upon the petty gossip and scandal of its own life, upon matters of form rather than substance, and ends in weakness, frivolity, and inanity. This danger of society is peculiar to our country. In every other country, of whatever form of government, the people who make up what is called society are the same people as those most closely connected with the government, and consequently society has in its keeping all the great interests which are hound up in governments. It is made to think, and to think intelligently, of affairs of state, of the general condition of the world, of the motives which influence the march of public events, and of course it talks about what it thinks about. It has solid public interests.

The difference is shown in the minutest details.

One striking effect of the divorce between politics and society has been the withdrawal of the old and mature people, who really have a solid and wide interest in public affairs, from all participation in it. People in the full maturity of their powers are not naturally unsociable. They enjoy meeting their friends and acquaintance no less and perhaps more than do younger persons. But with society as it commonly exists in this country they have now little or nothing in common. Accordingly, they have gradually withdrawn from it, and turned it over for the most part to boys just out of college and girls just out of frocks, who in their turn leave it, after two or three years of rather rapid enjoyment, to other boys and girls. A generation or so ago, elderly men and women were always to be seen in society; now it is rather dangerous to the reputation of a man much over forty to be seen going about in society, — and justly so. Without taking the late Mr. Mill’s view of society, that it is every one’s duty to resolve never to enter without improving it, and looking upon it simply as a means to an end, and that end enjoyment, it is almost melancholy to compare society in this degraded condition with society in the form it is perfectly capable of being made to take; to compare it as it exists in the commercial capital of tlie country with a society — not by any means an ideal society — made up of grown men and women engaged in liberalizing pursuits, and whose very jealousies and rivalries and gossip borrow a dignity from the largeness of their possible effects.

The peculiarity of Washington is that in it society and politics are not divorced; the same class which is engaged in the world of government makes up to a great extent the substance of society. The affairs which concern one concern the other also. The great attractiveness which this gives to life there can be easily imagined. Conversation is not confined to a number of hackneyed subjects, in which there is a conventional assumption of general interest, entirely unfounded in fact, but is forced into channels of real importance. The gencral facts of politics, the game of parties, the character of leading men, their motives, purposes, and strong and weak points, are not, as elsewhere, matters of infrequent and rather remote speculation, but of common knowledge and discussion. The members of the cabinet, and the chief senators and representatives, and the judges of the supreme court are not mere names, but actual, living, moving and breathing men; men possessed of power, and using it; men loved, honored, respected, feared, hated, detested.

It is here that the half dozen men who really control the two great political machines direct the movements which ruin the hopes of one candidate for office or seal with success the efforts of another. It is here, too, that the great commercial interests of the country are protected or assaulted by legislation; and it is here that the private wires are pulled which affect such legislation. It is here that all the sinister assaults and all the public movements which affect the destiny of a great nation centre, and the contending forces of good and evil work out the result which produces general misery or general happiness. One to whom such a perpetual drama, with all its exits, entrances, scene-shifting, “effects,’' and dénoûments, is no cause of concern or entertainment must he either very much above or very much below the level of ordinary human sympathy.

Of course, in the present condition of politics, its introduction into society is not an unmixed blessing. To have a society in which perfect ease and comfort prevail it is necessary that the classes which compose it shall be nearly on a level; shall have the same general ideas, tastes, prejudices, likes, and dislikes. It cannot be said that these prevail at Washington. Its society is compounded of elements more heterogeneous than any other in the country. Not that the life depicted in The Mighty Dollar or The Gilded Age is a true delineation of it; but there is something in it which furnishes a basis for such burlesques. It must be confessed that the developments and exposures of the last few years have brought to light in the United States what it is not unfair to call a close connection between politics and crime. Every one recognizes this in the large cities, but it cannot exist in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago without showing itself also in Washington; and while in other cities the divorce between politics and society enables the latter to protect itself from the invasion of the criminal or suspected classes, this invasion is rendered easier in Washington by the very union which we have mentioned of politics (including its criminal branches) with society. It is difficult to go into the details of this part of our subject as they deserve without making allusions to persons, living or dead, in jail or out of it, which might be painful. Everybody has been amused at Tweed’s reply to the question addressed to him at his entrance into prison as to his occupation, when he declared himself to be a “ statesman.” Since then, however, several statesmen at Washington have found themselves uncomfortably near being compelled to give a similar reply in equally unpleasant surroundings. There are certain sorts of sins to which society is lenient, others to which it can never afford to be. That a man has killed another in a duel is, socially, nothing against him, and in fact may be a positive recommendation; hut forgery, obtaining money under false pretenses, embezzlement, perjury, and breach of trust are offenses which necessarily prevent the perpetrators of them from being pleasant company. Good society is made upon the assumption that its members do not commit these crimes. But in politics the commission of them is by no means uncommon. Many a leading statesman of both parties has made his way to high station by their aid, and consequently the exposure of the means by which he has risen places society in a very embarrassing position. Shall he be discarded on account of the exposure, or retained on account of his success? The question is said to have been solved with great discretion, last winter, by a lady who was thoroughly at home in Washington society, in the case of an eminent man, formerly a bright social ornament, but then unfortunately lying in jail on a charge of defrauding the government. This lady observed that whatever others might do, for her part she “ drew the line at a felon.”

It is proper to allude to one or two customs of the place which may be considered to illustrate the ” simplicity ” of the society, or the reverse. The rule in Washington is that all strangers pay visits first, — a rule which, like most social rules, is observed with strictness by foreigners, and with considerable laxity by natives. Not only this, but it is to a certain extent de rigueur for all the Washington magnates to return visits (by leaving a card) on all persons, known or unknown, who call on them. For instance, if the wife of the smallest tradesman in Washington takes it into her head that she would like to have the acquaintance of the wife of the secretary of state, all that is necessary for her to do is, after securing some passable costume (dressing in Washington need not be what it must in Paris or New York), to present herself on the regular “ day ” at the secretary’s house. She will be admitted, will pay her respects, and the next day she will have the satisfaction of having left at her own door by the official footman a card bearing the official inscription, “ The Secretary of State.” Now, this tends to great complication rather than to simplicity, and if it could be given up would make life for the wives of high officials more endurable. An attempt was made during the last administration to break it up, but, like one or two other more serious reforms undertaken at that time, the attempt failed. The existence of such a custom tends to make society altogether too easy of entrance, and to foist upon it gradually many characters whom, if left to itself, it would not recognize. It, exists nowhere but in Washington, and would not be tolerated for a moment anywhere else. It is, of course, regarded by everybody as very " democratic,” and so it is; but it must be confessed that when democratic principles are carried so far as to permit strangers to force their acquaintance upon people who do not care for it, it is risking a good deal for the sake of political consistency. The custom is like that fabled to prevail along the Western frontier, which entitled any member of the community to force a stranger to drink with him or be shot. No such custom could prevail in a society which aimed at being “ exclusive,” and if a fault may be found with society in Washington, it is that of not being exclusive enough.

All this merely gives an inadequate and perhaps an erroneous impression of life in our artificial capital. To put the whole thing in two words, society in Washington is, certainly for a stranger, the most agreeable in the country. It is hospitable and it is interesting. A small place in itself, it is given, by being the political head-quarters of the country, a dignity which no other place of the size can dream of: it attracts to itself during the winter a large number of the people best worth seeing, — not merely natives, but foreigners as well; its artificialities and rules have just that degree of flexibility which most social laws have in America; and it is conspicuous for a good taste which has banished the display and ostentation that has elsewhere become a national reproach.