The Presidency and Senator Allison

DURING the little more than one hundred years of our national existence, twenty-three men, by election or succession, have become Presidents of the United States. It might naturally be assumed that so large a number would enable us to define in some degree the characters and qualifications chiefly favored by the republic for its highest office. This would undoubtedly be true had the popular idea of the office remained as fixed as its constitutional powers and limitations. The fact is, however, that the people have viewed it in changing lights, and its dignity has too often been made to conform to the varying political tendencies of the times ; for while in our earlier history the country chose successively its most distinguished citizen for President, there came a time when the growing importance of party government made him little more than the figure-head of his party, and the office but the personal embodiment of one set of party principles. Clay, Webster, and Calhoun could not win the prize that fell so easily to Polk, Taylor, and Pierce. Fealty in a candidate was held as of more consequence than national distinction, and government by the party and for the party superseded, in men’s minds, government by the people and for the people, until it finally culminated in the refusal by those who held certain tenets of political faith to recognize as their President the one elected by those who held different views. This meant civil war, and while the result buried many of the issues that had made possible such a conception of the presidential office, it was the greatness of Lincoln himself that restored the office to its rightful distinction, and recalled the earlier conception of it held by the founders of the republic. What these thought is easily ascertained by looking at the men they selected. The first six Presidents of the United States were all distinguished as leaders in war and diplomacy, and framers of the Constitution. They were men long accustomed to affairs of state and widely experienced in executive details of government. With the exception of Washington and John Adams, each had occupied Cabinet positions in at least one previous administration. They were all men trained for the duties of statecraft, and in that respect must have represented, as the first chosen under the new Constitution, the intention of the framers of that instrument, as well as the ideals of the young republic.

Bitter as was party spirit during most of this earlier period, the traditions which called for specific training in government controlled the selection of presidential candidates; but all such traditions were cast aside when Andrew Jackson was elected President. His election was in a measure a revolt against that government by the old régime which was the product of English constitutional procedure, inherited by the States from the colonies and carried into.the domain of national politics. But in 1828 the United States had for more than fifty years been politically independent. An entirely new generation, born since the Revolution, was at the front; and it was a generation that had begun to turn its back on the Atlantic seaboard, and to march west and southwest. Parties were forming on distinctions of internal policy, and it would not be hard to demonstrate that precedents in government, religion, literature, arts, and society were largely displaced by the spontaneous, self-confident action of an energetic, rude, and courageous people. In the second and third quarters of the present century the United States was the great field for innumerable experiments in living; and the experiments were not made more easy by the enormous inrush of uneducated Europeans, tempered by a small busy contingent of political theorists.

This period of experiment is drawing to a close; the financial experiment is the last to disappear before the hard lessons of experience and the acute reasoning of a generation trained in the schools of history of all nations. The political independence won technically in 1783, and confirmed by the war of 1812, was followed by the self-dependence which was in effect an effort of the nation to adjust itself upon terms which largely ignored foreign relations. It seems evident that we are drawing into a period, for better or worse, when the law of interdependence will largely control our national being, and the chief representative of the people will take his place more distinctly as one of the great magistrates of the modern world.

These considerations bring us back to a position not far removed from that held necessarily by the first generation of the republic. The severance of political connection with Europe was formal, yet partial in reality, and it was of the utmost consequence that the government should be organized by men who were trained in statecraft, and could be trusted to conduct the new nation out of the troubled waters of world politics into the open sea of its own high course. But during the course of two generations or more of self-dependence a thousand magnetic influences have been at work drawing us back into world relations ; the Atlantic and the Pacific have both shrunk in dimensions, and look whichever way we will, we can no longer delude ourselves into the belief that we need only consider ourselves. Again comes the need of a government strong in the traditions we have formed, but strong also In the presence of leaders trained in a statesmanship which offers a larger outlook than comes from mere party management.

The United States Senate may be looked upon as the best training-school in statesmanship we have had, — not of course so conspicuously in administrative function, but in the consideration of great national problems; and if we look there for a man of continuous experience, of prominence in the conduct of business, a representative of the Mississippi Valley, and in the prime of mature life, we shall find him in the Senator from Iowa, William Boyd Allison. It is worth while to consider the stand he has taken on great public questions, and the contribution which his temperament, ability, and character make toward his fitness for the highest office in the gift of the nation. Mr. Allison has just been honored by the State of Iowa with a fifth election to the Senate of the United States ; and this circumstance, rare in the history of our country, has an added significance in the fact that every election by his party associates has been unanimous. On the last occasion no other name was even mentioned for the office, and the election was followed by a scene memorable for its enthusiasm, in which the representatives of both parties in the legislature joined. Thirty years’ continuous congressional service on the part of a citizen of a State confessedly high in intelligence is in itself an evidence of conspicuous worth.

Mr. Allison was born in Perry, Wayne County, Ohio, March 2, 1829. He comes on both sides of that Scotch-Irish ancestry which Professor Shaler has analyzed in a paper in this number of The Atlantic. His boyhood was passed on a farm. He manifested a remarkable taste for mathematics, and was extremely methodical in his habits even as a boy. He was educated at the Wooster Academy, Alleghany College, and Western Reserve College, teaching school meanwhile to gain the necessary funds to enable him to complete his education. Immediately on leaving college he studied law, and was admitted to the bar of Ohio in 1851. He began practice in Ashland. In 1853, when the Whig party was disintegrating and the Republican party just coming into existence, a state convention was held at Columbus. Its presiding officer was John Sherman, its secretary was William B. Allison, and its nominee for governor was Salmon P. Chase, — three men destined in later years to eminent distinction as co-workers in the broader field of national affairs. Seeking a larger opportunity, Mr. Allison removed first to Chicago, and then pushed on further west, finally settling, in 1857, almost by accident, in Dubuque, Iowa, where he has lived ever since.

Having taken some interest in politics in Ohio with rather unfortunate results, Mr. Allison tempted fate again in Iowa. He had inherited from his father membership of the Whig party, but with the nomination of Frémont had joined the Republicans. It was to his unfortunate venture in Ohio that he referred in a facetious line written in a letter to John Sherman congratulating him on his election : “ Republics are not so ungrateful as I supposed when I was defeated for district attorney.” Having known Samuel J. Kirkwood in Ohio, Mr. Allison became very much interested in the campaign in Iowa which resulted in making Kirkwood governor. The prominence achieved in that canvass caused him to be sent as a delegate to the Republican national convention which nominated Lincoln for President. He was made a secretary of the convention, and called his mathematics into play by casting up the total of votes as they were declared, and being the first to announce to the presiding officer that Lincoln had carried the day.

When Lincoln, as President, issued his call, in the summer of 1861, for 300,000 troops, Governor Kirkwood appointed Mr. Allison lieutenant - colonel on his staff, with authority to raise and equip regiments in northeastern Iowa. He raised four regiments, and then fell ill from overwork. On his recovery he was elected to Congress from the old third district, sitting in the House with James F. Wilson, Hiram Price, A. W. Hubbard, J. B. Grinnell, and John A. Kasson. It was during the canvass for this election that he conceived the plan, which afterward became general throughout the North, of giving the soldiers on duty the opportunity of voting without leaving their posts. The scheme required a legislative enactment, and Governor Kirkwood hesitated about calling a special session of the legislature for this purpose, in view of the expense it would entail; but Mr. Allison enlisted Senator Grimes on his side, and the session was called which sanctioned this mode of counting the soldier vote, a measure which secured the Republican majority in at least three districts.

Mr. Allison took his seat in the House December 3, 1863, on the same day with Blaine and Garfield, and remained there till March 4,1871. At the beginning of his second term he became a member of the Ways and Means Committee, and rose by degrees thereafter to the second place. He opposed the tariff act of 1870 so far as it proposed an increase of existing duties, his plea being that a war tariff should be reduced rather than increased in a time of peace. His arguments made such an impression that the bill was amended very much on the lines he laid down, and received the support of every Republican in the House; and during the next session the Dawes horizontal reduction of ten per cent went through both houses in a way which vindicated the attitude of Mr. Allison. Not a revenue measure has passed Congress since he entered it that he has not helped to frame. In 1868, Mr. Allison, and Representatives Schenck of Ohio and Hooper of Massachusetts, composed the sub - committee that codified and consolidated all the internal revenue tax laws, and inaugurated the system of collecting taxes on tobacco, distilled spirits, and beer by means of revenue stamps. Mr. Allison’s retirement from the House was due to his declining a renomination in 1870. He had become involved in the contest with George G. Wright for a seat in the Senate. He was unsuccessful then, but two years later he tried again, and won, taking his seat in the Senate on March 4, 1873.

Just prior to his election to the Senate Mr. Allison went abroad, and spent much time in studying the economic and monetary systems of Europe. He placed himself in communication with the leading financiers of England, Germany, and France, and laid broad and deep the foundations of his financial knowledge. As a further means of information and study he has collected at his home in Dubuque a large and carefully selected library of books dealing with economic and financial questions, which is probably excelled, on these topics, by very few private libraries in America. Here all his vacation days are spent, and to those who have known him only amid the busy surroundings of his Washington life there will come almost as a surprise the knowledge that he loves best his leisure hours in the quiet of his splendid library.

The first work done by Mr. Allison in the Senate was as chairman of a joint select committee of Congress to investigate the abuses of the government of the District of Columbia under the Shepherd ring. The report of this committee, which filled two large volumes, recommended the form of government by a non-partisan commission which is now in force and has proved highly successful. He was at the same time made a member of the Committee on Appropriations. He has served on this committee for twenty-two years, for over twelve of which he has been its chairman. When it is remembered that, in the Senate, all the appropriation bills, with the exception of the river and harbor bill, are sent to this committee, it will readily be seen how its work enters into every department of the government, and how thorough must be the knowledge thus gained of every detail of our vast governmental system.

In 1877 Mr. Allison became a member of the Finance Committee of the Senate, and took a conspicuous part in every debate on the money question and the tariff. In the tariff debate of 1883 he emphasized his objection to extreme protective duties by saying, “ If we are to have a fair bill, it must have some relation to the people who consume ; ” but renewed his assurances of belief in the protective principle by declaring that he had endeavored “ to protect fairly every industry in this country.” As chairman of a sub-committee to revise the customs administration laws, Mr. Allison reported a complete change of methods and machinery for appraisement and classification of imports. His bill passed the Senate in 1888, but was not considered in the House. The next year it was made a part of the Allison substitute for the Mills tariff bill, and was again passed by the Senate, but the House would have nothing to do with the substitute. Finally, in 1890, it was taken up in the House, in the course of the general tariff legislation of that year, as a sequel to the McKinley bill, and became a law. The Democrats in the Fifty-Third Congress, although making a sweeping revision of the tariff, left the administrative law undisturbed. It was a sub-committee to which Mr. Allison belonged, also, that drew up the reciprocity section of the McKinley law.

It is, however, as a student of national finance that Senator Allison has won his chief distinction, and by his action in this field he is most closely to be examined. In 1874 he supported the inflation bill, increasing the greenback issue to a total of $400,000,000, both on its original passage and after President Grant had vetoed it. He supported the resumption act of 1875, but his hand was first felt most emphatically in the course which he took regarding the expansion of the silver currency. When, in 1878, the Bland bill, by a large majority, passed the House of Representatives, it provided for the free and unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of sixteen to one. When it was reported back from the Finance Committee to the Senate by Senator Allison (then, as now, a member of that committee), it contained two important amendments, prepared by himself, which changed utterly the character of the bill. One amendment limited the maximum amount to be coined to not more than four millions of dollars a month, and the other provided for an international conference to agree upon a ratio. The bill passed with these amendments, and became a law. Mr. Allison was one of those who believed, like Secretary Windom, Senator Sherman, President Harrison, and some other prominent Republicans, in the possibility of treating with the silver forces, and giving them compromise legislation from time to time to stay their appetites for measures more radical. It should be noted that there was a very strong pressure brought to bear upon Congress, especially by the West, at this time, for measures looking to an expansion of the currency. The greenback heresy was its most vehement expression. The entire Central and Western States complained of a lack of circulation. and, with the rate of interest ranging from seven to twelve per cent, it was argued that conditions would greatly improve if some means could be devised of increasing the amount of money in circulation. It should be remembered, also, that the value of silver relative to gold iu the markets of the world in 1878 was not very far from the ratio fixed in the Bland-Allison bill. But Mr. Allison further demonstrated his willingness to strain a point to secure partisan advantages when he supported the dangerous Sherman act of 1890.

In a full survey of Mr. Allison’s position in financial matters account must be taken of the relation which he has borne to his State. He has had a constituency at home which has been strangely affected from time to time by the various economic and financial heresies that have swept across that Western country. Greenbackism nurtured its chief apostle, Weaver, in Iowa; Grangerism had its most fanatical advocates, and for a brief time its largest following, in that State ; and Populism lives in abundant strength in all the neighboring commonwealths ; and yet when Ohio and Indiana declared for fiat money, when Kansas and Nebraska shouted for free silver, and elected Populist governors and even Populist Senators of the United States, the State of Iowa, largely through the personal influence and zeal of Senator Allison, was kept firmly anchored to the principles of good government and sound finance. No man can estimate the educating force of the speeches which he has every year delivered in almost every county of his State. For two months, in every campaign, state or national, he has preached from every platform in Iowa the same doctrines that he votes for in the Senate, and he has greatly influenced that State, by the force of his own conviction and the strength of his personal popularity, to keep in line, on national issues, with the best and most enlightened sentiment of the country.

Mr. Allison has twice been offered the position of Secretary of the Treasury, first by Mr. Garfield, and afterward by Mr. Harrison. In 1892 he was appointed by the latter President a delegate to the International Monetary Conference held at Brussels, and his associates elected him chairman of the delegation.

He was one of the twenty-four Republican Senators who voted, in December, 1882, for the Pendleton bill to reform the civil service ; and the record of the debates of the Senate on the reform shows that it was he who introduced, advocated, and finally succeeded in securing the adoption of most of the important amendments to the law which made it a practical and efficient statute. Mr. George William Curtis, in a letter written during the course of the debate, stated that without these amendments the law would be of little use, and they were carried in the face of opposition of the most persistent character on the part of leading Senators of both parties. He has uniformly supported the annual appropriation for the civil service commission, but has taken no conspicuous part in debate on the subject.

For a man who has been so constantly in full view of the country for thirty odd years, his reputation has been singularly free from attack by the scandal-mongers. He was associated with Mr. Blaine in certain investments, but in none, so far as known, with which any scandal was connected. When he was making his campaign for reëlection to the Senate in 1883, a prominent Iowa Greenbacker accused him of having, as Congressman, procured votes of lands and bunds to a railroad company in which he had a pecuniary interest, and of having reaped a big profit from the operation. His friends promptly looked the matter up, and cited dates and other statistics of record to show that the only basis for the charge was that he had once bought and paid for five thousand dollars’ worth of stock of the Sioux City branch of the Union Pacific road, but that for this the subsidy had been voted before he entered Congress; that he paid his assessments like the other stockholders ; and that he finally disposed of his holding at the same price he had given for it, for the sake of being relieved from further assessments.

Such, in brief, is the position which Senator Allison has taken upon the questions which at present most profoundly affect the well-being of the nation. His conduct in debate, his work in committee, and his votes show him to be a man of judicial temper, of moderation, and of fullness of knowledge. As a law-maker, he is industrious, painstaking, methodical ; as a debater, he has command of large resources, all of the most practical sort. Our financial history since 1850 is as familiar to him as his seat in the Senate. He speaks upon it, giving dates and figures, in the lucid and easy manner of an expert statistician. Nor does his thought end with items and details ; he grasps principles as well. It is doubtful if any man in public life is his equal in exact knowledge of the country’s past business legislation. His temperament saves him from yielding to mere public clamor. He is not troubled with that form of timidity which so often attacks avowed candidates for promotion in politics, the fear of opening his mouth on any public topic. He is as ready now as ever to state his attitude on various questions and to explain his votes. His only requirement in such cases is that the occasion shall be sufficiently dignified to be worthy of a public utterance, so that his precise language, and nothing else, shall be reported. Perhaps the one exception to his general rule of candor may be found in the prohibition question, which in Iowa has threatened to split the Republican party forever; but in extenuation of his avoidance of this issue it is but fair to say that the question is strictly local, and that his official sphere is national, so that his views on the liquor problem are as foreign to the work he is called upon to do as would be his views on theology or astronomy. The moderation of his opinions on all subjects has probably done more than anything else to prevent him from ever becoming a great champion of a great cause. And not his moderation only. One has an instinctive feeling that a statesman who tries to produce results by indirection, and is most in his element in a conference committee, lacks the commanding power of a man who works openly and directly. In discussing the silver question, he has never gone to extremes with either faction, but has occupied a comfortable middle ground, where he could act in emergencies as a peacemaker; in tariff legislation he has always supported the protective policy, but never to the prohibitive degree; on foreign questions he has been temperate and judicial as a rule, and is as far as possible from being an alarmist.

In all this account there is evidence of a sound-headed man, of integrity of character, of high principles, and possessed of a wide experience. Is it possible to go beyond this, and regard him as a great leader, a man capable of taking the initiative in public affairs ? That he is diplomatic, a peacemaker, a skillful contriver of compromises, not as ends in themselves, but as means of getting out of difficulties, is clear enough ; but it is not out of such stuff that great leaders are made. It may be said, without any sneer in the phrase, that he is a safe man, an eminently respectable statesman, whose election to the presidency would mean that the weight of his office would always be on the side of a clean, honest administration. He is a follower, not a leader. So was Lincoln up to a certain point. But again and again Lincoln passed that point. It is doubtful if Mr. Allison ever will pass the point where a danger signal is hoisted. Should emergencies arise, he will be found temporizing, adjusting, arranging ; and in all but the greatest moments these shifts avail tolerably well when they proceed from a man who will not sacrifice principle. Years of public service have confirmed this character, and it is idle to look for any change. Responsibility of office would merely strengthen a disposition already established. Blaine’s summary of Mr. Allison was meant to commend him to Garfield as Secretary of the Treasury. It is not a bad characterization from friend or opponent: “ He is true, kind, reasonable, fair, honest, and good. He is methodical, industrious, and intelligent, and would be a splendid man to sail along with smoothly and successfully.” Perhaps, during the next few years, when the country will be readjusting her position among the nations, a man of this calibre may be the best man to have at the head of affairs ; but a pilot in smooth waters is one thing, a captain is quite another.