The Capture of Government by Commercialism
MISGOVERNMENT in the United States is an incident in the history of commerce. It is part of the triumph of industrial progress. Its details are easier to understand if studied as a part of the commercial development of the country than if studied as a part of government, because many of the wheels and cranks in the complex machinery of government are now performing functions so perverted as to be unmeaning from the point of view of political theory, but which become perfectly plain if looked at from the point of view of trade.
The growth and concentration of capital which the railroad and the telegraph made possible is the salient fact in the history of the last quarter-century. That fact is at the bottom of our political troubles. It was inevitable that the enormous masses of wealth, springing out of new conditions and requiring new laws, should strive to control the legislation and the administration which touched them at every point. At the present time, we cannot say just what changes were or were not required by enlightened theory. It is enough to see that such changes as came were inevitable ; and nothing can blind us to the fact that the methods by which they were obtained were subversive of free government.
Whatever form of government had been in force in America during this era would have run the risk of being controlled by capital, of being bought and run for revenue. It happened that the beginning of the period found the machinery of our government in a particularly purchasable state. The war had left the people divided into two parties which were fanatically hostile to each other. The people were party mad. Party name and party symbols were of an almost religious importance.
At the very moment when the enthusiasm of the nation had been exhausted in a heroic war which left the Republican party managers in possession of the ark of the covenant, the best intellect of the country was withdrawn from public affairs and devoted to trade. During the period of expansion which followed, the industrial forces called in the ablest men of the nation to aid them in getting control of the machinery of government. The name of king was never freighted with more power than the name of party in the United States ; whatever was done in that name was right. It is the old story: there has never been a despotism which did not rest upon superstition. The same spirit that made the Republican name all powerful in the nation at large made the Democratic name valuable in Democratic districts.
The situation as it existed was made to the hand of trade. Political power had been condensed and packed for delivery by the war; and in the natural course of things the political trademarks began to find their way into the coffers of the capitalist. The change of motive power behind the party organizations — from principles to money — was silently effected during the thirty years which followed the war. Like all organic change, it was unconscious. It was understood by no one. It is recorded only in a few names and phrases ; as, for instance, that part of the organization which was purchased was called the “machine,” and the general manager of it became known as the “ boss.” The external political history of the country continued as before. It is true that a steady degradation was to be seen in public life, a steady failure of character, a steady decline of decency. But questions continued to be discussed, and in form decided, on their merits, because it was in the interest of commerce that they should in form be so decided. Only quite recently has the control of money become complete ; and there are reasons for believing that the climax is past.
Let us take a look at the change on a small scale. A railroad is to be run through a country town or small city, in Massachusetts, New York, or Pennsylvania. The railroad employs a local attorney, naturally the ablest attorney in the place. As time goes on, various permits for street uses are needed ; and instead of relying solely upon popular demand, the attorney finds it easier to bribe the proper officials. All goes well: the railroad thrives, the town grows. But in the course of a year new permits of various kinds are needed. The town ordinances interfere with the road and require amendment. There is to be a town election ; and it occurs to the railroad’s attorney that he might be in alliance with the town officers before they are elected. He goes to the managers of the party which is likely to win ; for instance, the Republican party. Everything that the railroad wants is really called for by the economic needs of the town. The railroad wants only fair play and no factious obstruction. The attorney talks to the Republican leader, and has a chance to look over the list of candidates, and perhaps even to select some of them. The railroad makes the largest campaign subscription ever made in that part of the country. The Republican leader can now employ more workers to man the polls, and, if necessary, he can buy votes. He must also retain some fraction of the contribution for his own support, and distribute the rest in such manner as will best keep his “ organization ” together.
The party wins, and the rights of the railroad are secured for a year. It is true that the brother of the Republican leader is employed on the road as a brakeman ; but he is a competent man.
During the year, a very nice point of law arises as to the rights of the railroad to certain valuable land claimed by the town. The city attorney is an able man, and reasonable. In spite of his ability, he manages somehow to state the city’s case on an untenable ground. A decision follows in favor of the railroad. At the following election, the city attorney has become the Republican candidate for judge, and the railroad’s campaign subscription is trebled. In the conduct of railroads, even under the best management, accidents are common ; and while it is true that important decisions are appealable, a trial judge has enormous powers which are practically discretionary. Meanwhile, there have arisen questions of local taxation of the railroad’s property, questions as to grade crossings, as to the lighting of cars, as to time schedules, and the like. The court calendars are becoming crowded with railroad business ; and that business is now more than one attorney can attend to. In fact, the half dozen local lawyers of prominence are railroad men ; the rest of the lawyers would like to be. Every one of the railroad lawyers receives deferential treatment, and, when possible, legal advantage in all of the public offices. The community is now in the control of a ring, held together by just one thing, the railroad company’s subscription to the campaign fund.
By this time a serious scandal has occurred in the town, —nothing less than the rumor of a deficit in the town treasurer’s accounts, and the citizens are concerned about it. One of the railroad’s lawyers, a strong party man, happens to be occupying the post of district attorney ; for the yearly campaign subscriptions continue. This district attorney is, in fact, one of the committee on nominations who put the town treasurer into office ; and the Republican party is responsible for both. No prosecution follows. The district attorney stands for reëlection.
An outsider comes to live in the town. He wants to reform things, and proceeds to talk politics. He is not so inexperienced as to seek aid from the rich and respectable classes. He knows that the men who subscribed to the railroad’s stock are the same men who own the local bank, and that the manufacturers and other business men of the place rely on the bank for carrying on their business. He knows that all trades which are specially touched by the law, such as the liquor - dealers’ and hotel - keepers’, must “stand in” with the administration ; so also must the small shopkeepers, and those who have to do with sidewalk privileges and town ordinances generally. The newcomer talks to the leading hardware merchant, a man of stainless reputation, who admits that the district attorney has been remiss: but the merchant is a Republican, and says that so long as he lives he will vote for the party that saved the country. To vote for a Democrat is a crime. The reformer next approaches the druggist (whose father-in-law is in the employ of the railroad), and receives the same reply. He goes to the florist. But the florist owns a piece of real estate, and has a theory that it is assessed too high. The time for revising the assessment rolls is coming near, and he has to see the authorities about that. The florist agrees that the town is a den of thieves ; but he must live ; he has no time to go into theoretical politics. The stranger next interviews a retired grocer. But the grocer has lent money to his nephew, who is in the coal business, and is getting special rates from the railroad, and is paying off the debt rapidly. The grocer would be willing to help, but his name must not be used.
It is needless to multiply instances of what every one knows. After canvassing the whole community, the stranger finds five persons who are willing to work to defeat the district attorney : a young doctor of good education and small practice, a young lawyer who thinks he can make use of the movement by betraying it, a retired anti-slavery preacher, a maiden lady, and a piano-tuner. The district attorney is reëlected by an overwhelming vote.
All this time the railroad desires only a quiet life. It takes no interest in politics. It is making money, and does not want values disturbed. It is conservative.
In the following year worse things happen. The town treasurer steals more money, and the district attorney is openly accused of sharing the profits. The Democrats are shouting for reform, and declare that they will run the strongest man in town for district attorney. He is a Democrat, but one who fought for the Union. He is no longer in active practice, and is, on the whole, the most distinguished citizen of the place. This suggestion is popular. The hardware merchant declares that he will vote the Democratic ticket, and there is a sensation. It appears that during all these years there has been a Democratic organization in the town, and that the notorious corruption of the Republicans makes a Democraticvictory possible. The railroad company therefore goes to the manager of the Democratic party, and explains that it wants only to be let alone. It explains that it takes no interest in politics, but that, if a change is to come, it desires only that So-and-So shall be retained, and it leaves a subscription with the Democratic manager. In short, it makes the best terms it can. The Democratic leader, if he thinks that he can make a clean sweep, may nominate the distinguished citizen, together with a group of his own organization comrades. It obviously would be of no use to him to name a full citizens’ ticket. That would be treason to his party. If he takes this course and wins, we shall have ring rule of a slightly milder type. The course begins anew, under a Democratic name; and it may be several years before another malfeasance occurs.
But the Republican leader and the railroad company do not want war ; they want peace. They may agree to make it worth while for the Democrats not to run the distinguished citizen. A few Democrats are let into the Republican ring. They are promised certain minor appointive offices, and some contracts and emoluments. Accordingly, the Democrats do not nominate the distinguished citizen. The hardware man sees little choice between the two nominees for district attorney ; at any rate, he will not vote for a machine Democrat, and he again votes for his party nominee. All the reform talk simmers down to silence. The Republicans are returned to power.
The town is now ruled by a Happy Family. Stable equilibrium has been reached at last. Commercialism is in control. Henceforth, the railroad company pays the bills for keeping up both party organizations, and it receives care and protection from whichever side is nominally in power.
The party leaders have by this time become the general utility men of the railroad ; they are its agents and factotums. The boss is the handy man of the capitalist. So long as the people of the town are content to vote on party lines they cannot get away from the railroad. In fact, there are no national parties in the town. A man may talk about them, but he cannot vote for one of them, because they do not exist. He can vote only for or against the railroad ; and to do the latter, an independent ticket must be nominated.
It must not be imagined that any part of the general public clearly understands this situation. The state of mind of the Better Element of the Republican side has been seen. The good Democrats are equally distressed. The distinguished citizen ardently desires to oust the Republican ring. He subscribes year after year to the campaign fund of his own party, and declares that the defalcation of the town treasurer has given it the opportunity of a generation. The Democratic organization takes his money and accepts his moral support, and uses it to build up one end of the machine. It cries, “ Reform ! Reform ! Give us back the principles of Jefferson and of Tilden! ”
The Boss-out-of-Power must welcome all popular movements. He must sometimes accept a candidate from a citizens’ committee, sometimes refuse to do it. He must spread his mainsail to the national party wind of the moment. His immense advantage is an intellectual one. He alone knows the principles of the game. He alone sees that the power of the bosses comes from party loyalty. Croker recently stated his ease frankly thus: “ A man who would desert his party would desert his country.”
It may be remarked, in passing, that New York city reached the Happy Family stage many years ago. Tammany Hall is in power, being maintained there by the great mercantile interests. The Republican party is out of power, and its organization is kept going by the same interests. It has always been the earmark of an enterprise of the first financial magnitude in New York that it subscribed to both campaign funds. The Republican function has been to prevent any one from disturbing Tammany Hall. This has not been difficult; the Republicans have always been in a hopeless minority, and the machine managers understood this perfectly. Now if, by the simple plan of denouncing Tammany Hall, and appealing to the war record of the Republican party, they could hold their constituency, Tammany would be safe. The matter is actually more complex than this, but the principle is obvious.
To return to our country town. It is easy to see that the railroad is pouring out its money in the systematic corruption of the entire community. Even the offices with which it has no contact will be affected by this corruption. Men put in office because they are tools will work as tools only. Voters once bribed will thereafter vote for money only. The subscribing and the voting classes, whose state of mind is outlined above, are not purely mercenary. The retired grocer, the florist, the druggist, are all influenced by mixed motives, in which personal interest bears a greater or a smaller share. Each of these men belongs to a party, as a Brahmin is born into a caste. His spirit must suffer an agony of conversion before he can get free, even if he is poor. If he has property, he must pay for that conversion by the loss of money, also.
Since 1865 the towns throughout the United States have been passing through this stage. A ring was likely to spring up wherever there was available capital. We hear a great talk about the failure of our institutions as applied to cities, as if it were our incapacity to deal with masses of people and with the problems of city expansion that wrecked us. It is nothing of the sort. There is intellect and business capacity enough in the country to run the Chinese Empire like clockwork. Philosophers state broadly that our people “ prefer to live in towns,” and cite the rush to the cities during the last thirty years. The truth is that the exploitation of the continent could be done most conveniently by the assembling of business men in towns; and hence it is that the worst rings are found in the larger cities. But there are rings everywhere ; and wherever you see one you will find a factory behind it. If the population had remained scattered, commerce would have pursued substantially the same course. We should have had the rings just the same. It is perfectly true that the wonderful and scientific concentration of business that we have seen in the past thirty years gave the chance for the wonderful and scientific concentration of its control over politics. The state machine could be constructed easily by consolidating local rings of the same party name.
The boss par excellence is a state boss. He is a comparatively recent development. He could exist only in a society which had long been preparing for him. He coidd operate only in a society where almost every class and almost every individual was in a certain sense corrupted. The exact moment of his omnipotence in the state of New York, for instance, is recorded in the actions of the state legislature. Less than ten years ago, the bribing of the legislature was done piecemeal and at Albany ; and the great corporations of the state were accustomed to keep separate attorneys in the capitol, ready for any emergency. But the economy of having the legislature corrupted before election soon became apparent. If the party organizations could furnish a man with whom the corporation managers could contract directly, they and their directors could sleep at night. The boss sprang into existence to meet this need. He is a commercial agent, like his little local prototype ; but the scope of his activities is so great and their directions are so various, the forces that he deals with are so complex and his mastery over them is so complete, that a kind of mystery envelops him. He appears in the newspapers like a demon of unaccountable power. He is the man who gives his attention to aiding in the election of the candidates for state office, and to retaining his hold upon them after election. His knowledge of local politics all over a state, and the handling of the very large sums of money subscribed by sundry promoters and corporations, explain the miracle of his control.
The government of a state is no more than a town government for a wide area. The methods of bribery which work certain general results in a town will work similar results in a state. But the scale of operations is vastly greater. The statecontrolled businesses, such as banking, insurance, and the state public works, and the liquor traffic, involve the expenditure of enormous sums of money.
The effect of commercialism on politics is best seen in the state system. The manner of nominating candidates shows how easily the major force in a community makes use of its old customs.
The American plan of party government provides for primaries, caucuses, and town, county, and state conventions. It was devised on political principles, and was intended to be a means of working out the will of the majority, by a gradual delegation of power from bottom to top. The exigencies of commerce required that this machinery should be made to work backwards, — namely, from top to bottom. It was absolutely necessary for commerce to have a political dictator ; and this was found to be perfectly easy. Every form and process of nomination is gravely gone through with, the dictator merely standing by and designating the officers and committee men at every step. There is something positively Egyptian in the formalism that has been kept up in practice, and in the state of mind of men who are satisfied with the procedure.
The men who, in the course of a party convention, are doing this marching and countermarching, this forming and dissolving into committees and delegations, and who appear like acolytes going through mystical rites and ceremonies, are only self-seeking men, without a real political idea in their heads. Their evolutions are done to be seen by the masses of the people, who will give them party support if these forms are complied with.
We all know well another interesting perversion of function. A legislator is by political theory a wise, enlightened man, pledged to intellectual duties. He gives no bonds. He is responsible only under the constitution and to his own conscience. Therefore, if the place is to be filled by a dummy, almost anybody will do. A town clerk must be a competent man, even under boss rule ; but a legislator will serve the need so long as he is able to say “ay” and “no.” The boss, then, governs the largest and the most complex business enterprise in the state; and he is always a man of great capacity. He is obliged to conduct it in a cumbersome and antiquated manner, and to proceed at every step according to precedent and by a series of fictions. When we consider that the legislators and governors are, after all, not absolute dummies; that among them are ambitious and rapacious men, with here and there an enemy or a traitor to the boss and to his dynasty, we cannot help admiring in the boss his high degree of Napoleonic intellect. And remember this : he must keep both himself and his patrons out of jail, and so far as possible keep them clear of public reprobation.
We have not as yet had any national boss, because the necessity for owning Congress has not as yet become continuous ; and the interests which have bought the national legislature at one time or another have done it by bribing individuals, in the old-fashioned way.
Turning now to New York city, we find the political situation very similar to that of the country town already described. The interests which actually control the businesses of the city are managed by very few individuals. It is only that the sum’s involved are different. One of these men is president of an insurance company whose assets are $130,000,000 ; another is president of a system of street railways with a capital stock of $30,000,000; another is president of an elevated road system with a capital of the same amount; a fourth is vice - president of a paving company worth $10,000,000 ; a fifth owns $50,000,000 worth of real estate ; a sixth controls a great railroad system ; a seventh is president of a savings-bank in which $5,000,000 are deposited ; and so on. The commercial ties which bind the community together are as close in the city as in the country town. The great magnates live in palaces, and the lesser ones in palaces, also. The hardware - dealer of the small town is in New York the owner of iron-works, a man of stainless reputation. The florist is the owner of a large tract of land within the city limits, through which a boulevard is about to be cut. The retired merchant has become a partner of his nephew, and is developing one of the suburbs by means of an extension of an electric road system. But the commercial hierarchy does not stop here ; it continues radiating, spreading downward. All businesses are united by the instruments and usages which the genius of trade has devised. All these interests together represent the railroad of the country town. They take no real interest in politics, and they desire only to be let alone.
For the twenty years before the Strong administration the government of the city was almost continuously under the control of a ring, or, accurately speaking, of a Happy Family. Special circumstances made this ring well-nigh indestructible. The Boss - out - of - Power of the Happy Family happens to be also the boss of the state legislature. He performs a double function. This is what has given Platt his extraordinary power. It will have been noticed that some of the masses of wealth above mentioned are peculiarly subject to state legislation : they subscribe directly to the state boss’s fund. Some are subject to interference from the city administration ; they subscribe to the city boss’s fund.
We see that by the receipt of his fund the state boss is rendered independent of the people of the city. He can use the state legislature to strengthen his hands in his dealings with the city boss. After all, he does not need many votes. He can buy enough votes to hold his minority together and keep Tammany safely in power, and by now and then taking a candidate from the citizens he advertises himself as a friend of reform.
As to the Tammany branch of the concern, the big money interests need specific and often illegal advantages, and pay heavily over the Tammany counter. But as we saw before, public officers, if once corrupted, will work only for money. Every business that has to do with one or another of the city offices must therefore now contribute for “protection.” A foreign business that is started in this city subscribes to Tammany Hall just as a visitor writes his name in a book at a watering-place. It gives him the run of the town. In the same way, the state - fearing business man subscribes to Platt for “ protection.” No secret is made of these conditions. The business man regards the reformer as a monomaniac who is not reasonable enough to see the necessity for his tribute. In the conduct of any large business, this form of bribery is as regular an item as rent. The machinery for such bribery is perfected. It is only when some blundering attempt is made by a corporation to do the bribing itself, when some unbusinesslike attempt is made to get rid of the middleman, that the matter is discovered. A few boodle aldermen go to jail, and every one is scandalized. The city and county officers of the new city of New York will have to do with the disbursing of $70,000,000 annually, — fully one half of it in the conduct of administration. The power of these officers to affect or even control values, by manipulation of one sort or another, is familiar to us all from experience in the past.
So much for business. Let us look at the law. The most lucrative practice is that of an attorney who protects great corporate interests among these breakers. He needs but one client; be gets hundreds. The mind of the average lawyer makes the same unconscious allowance for bribery as that of the business man. Moreover, we cannot overlook the cases of simple old-fashioned bribery to which the masses of capital give rise. In a political emergency any amount of money is forthcoming immediately, and it is given from aggregations of capital so large that the items are easily concealed in the accounts. Bribery, in one form or another, is part of the unwritten law. It is atmospheric ; it is felt by no one. The most able men in the community believe that society would drop to pieces without bribery. They do not express it in this way, but they act upon the principle in an emergency. A leader of the bar, at the behest of his Wall Street clients, begs the reform police board not to remove Inspector Byrnes, who is the Jonathan Wild of the period. The bench is able, and for the most part upright. But many of the judges on the bench have paid large campaign assessments in return for their nominations ; others have given notes to the bosses. This reveals the exact condition of things. In a corrupt era the judges paid cash. Now they help their friends. The son or the son-in-law of a judge is sure of a good practice, and referees are appointed from lists which are largely dictated by the professional politicians of both parties.
It would require an encyclopædia to state the various simple devices by which the same principle runs through every department in the life of the community. Such an encyclopædia for New York city would be the best picture of municipal misgovermnent in the United States during the commercial era. But one main fact must again be noted : this great complex ring is held together by the two campaign funds, the Tammany Hall fund and the Republican fund. They are the two power-houses which run all this machinery.
So far as human suffering goes, the positive evils of the system fall largely on the poor. The rich buy immunity, but the poor are persecuted, and have no escape or redress. This has always been the case under a tyranny. What else could we expect in New York ? The Lexow investigation showed us the condition of the police force. The lower courts, both criminal and civil, and the police department were used for votegetting and for money-getting purposes. They were serving as instruments of extortion and of favoritism. But in the old police courts the foreigner and the honest poor were actually attacked. Process was issued against them, their business was destroyed, and they were jailed unless they could buy off. This system still exists to some extent in the lower civil courts.
It is obvious that all these things come to pass through the fault of no one in particular. We have to-day reached the point where the public is beginning to understand that the iniquity is accomplished by means of the political boss. Every one is therefore abusing the boss. But Platt and Croker are not worse than the men who continue to employ them after understanding their function. These men stand for the conservative morality of New York, and for standards but little lower than the present standards.
Let us now see how those standards came to exist. Imagine a community in which, for more than a generation, the government has been completely under boss rule, so that the system has become part of the habits and of the thought of the people, and consider what views we might expect to find in the hearts of the citizens of such a community. The masses will have been controlled by what is really bribery and terrorism, but what appears in the form of a very plausible appeal to the individual on the ground of self-interest. For forty years money and place have been corrupting them. Their whole conception of politics is that it is a matter of money and of place. The well-to-do will have been apt to prosper in proportion as they have made themselves serviceable to the dominant powers, and become part and parcel of the machinery of the system. It is not to be pretended that every man in such a community is a rascal, but it is true that in so far as his business brings him into contact with the administrative officers every man will be put to the choice between lucrative malpractice and thankless honesty. A conviction will spread throughout the community that nothing can be done without a friend at court; that honesty does not pay, and probably never has paid in the history of the world ; that a boss is part of the mechanism by which God governs mankind ; that property would not be safe without him ; and, finally, that the recognized bosses are not so bad as they are painted. The great masses of corporate property have owners who really believe that the system of government which enabled them to make money is the only safe government. These people cling to abuses as to a life-preserver. They fear that an honest police board will not be able to bribe the thieves not to steal from them, that an honest state insurance department will not be able to prevent the legislature from pillaging them. It is absolutely certain that in the first struggles for reform the weight of the mercantile classes will be thrown very largely on the side of conservatism.
Now, in a great city like New York the mercantile bourgeoisie will include almost every one who has an income of five thousand dollars a year, or more. These men can be touched by the bosses, and therefore, after forty years of tyranny, it is not to be expected that many of those who wear black coats will have much enthusiasm for reform. It is “ impracticable ; ” it is “ discredited ; ” it is “ expensive ; ” it is “ advocated by unknown men ; ” it speaks ill of the “ respectable ; ” it “does harm” by exciting the poor against the rich ; it is “ unbusinesslike ” and “visionary;” it is “selfrighteous.” We have accordingly had, in New York city, a low and perverted moral tone, an incapacity to think clearly or to tell the truth when we know it. This is both the cause and the consequence of bondage. A generation of men really believed that honesty is bad policy, and will continue to be governed by Tammany Hall.
The world has wondered that New York could not get rid of its infamous incubus. The gross evils as they existed at the time of Tweed are remembered. The great improvements are not generally known. Reform has been slow, because its leaders have not seen that their work was purely educational. They did not understand the political combination, and they kept striking at Tammany Hall. Like a child with a toy, they did not see that the same mechanism which caused Punch to strike caused Judy’s face to disappear from the window.
It is not selfishness and treason that are mainly responsible for the discredit which dogs “reform.” It is the inefficiency of upright and patriotic men. The practical difficulty with reform movements in New York has been that the leaders of such movements have clung to old political methods. These men have thought that if they could hire or imitate the regular party machinery, they could make it work for good. They would fight the banditti with bravi. They would expel Tammany Hall, and lo, Tammany is within them.
Is it a failure of intellect or of morality which prevents the reformers from seeing that idealism is the shortest road to their goal ? It is the failure of both. It is a legacy of the old tyranny. In one sense it is corruption ; in another it is stupidity ; in every sense it is incompetence. Political incompetence is only another name for moral degradation, and both exist in New York for the same reason that they exist in Turkey. They are the offspring of blackmail.
Well-meaning and public-spirited men, who have been engrossed in business for the best part of their lives, are perhaps excusable for not understanding the principles on which reform moves. Any one can see that if what was wanted was merely a good school board, the easiest way to get it would be to go to Croker, give him a hundred thousand dollars, and offer to let him alone if he gave the good board. But until very recently nobody could see that putting good school commissioners on Platt’s ticket and giving Platt the hundred thousand dollars are precisely the same thing.
In an enterprise whose sole aim is to raise the moral standard idealism always pays. A reverse following a fight for principle, like the defeat of Low, is pure gain. It records the exact state of the cause. It educates the masses on a gigantic scale. The results of that education are immediately visible. They are visible in New York to-day in the revolt against the Republican machine and the determined fight for the reorganization of that party.
On the other hand, all compromise means delay. By compromise, the awakened faith of the people is sold to the politicians for a mess of reform. The failures and mistakes of Mayor Strong’s administration were among the causes for Mr. Low’s defeat. People said, “ If this be reform, give us Tammany Hall.” Our reformers have always been in hot haste to get results. They want a balance - sheet at the end of every year. They think this will encourage the people. But the people recall only their mistakes. The long line of reform leaders in New York city are remembered with contempt. “ The evil that men do lives after them ; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
That weakness of intellect which makes reformers love quick returns is twin brother to a certain defect of character. Personal vanity is very natural in men who figure as tribunes of the people. They say, “ Look at Abraham Lincoln, and how he led the people out of the wilderness ; let us go no faster than the people in pushing these reforms ; let us accept half-measures ; let us be Abraham Lincoln.” The example of Lincoln has wrecked many a promising young man ; for really Lincoln has no more to do with the case than Julius Cæsar. As soon as the reformers give up trying to be statesmen, and perceive that their own function is purely educational, and that they are mere anti-slavery agitators and persons of no account whatever, they will succeed better.
As to the methods of work in reform, — whether it shall be by clubs or by pamphlets, by caucus or by constitution, — they will be developed. Executive capacity is simply that capacity which is always found in people who really want something done.
In New York, the problem is not to oust Tammany Hall; another would arise in a year. It is to make the great public understand the boss system, of which Tammany is only a part. As fast as the reformers see that clearly themselves, they will find the right machinery to do the work in hand. It may be that, like the Jews, we shall have to spend forty years more in the wilderness, until the entire generation that lived under Pharaoh has perished. But education nowadays marches quickly. The progress that has been made during the last seven years in the city of New York gives hope that within a decade a majority of the voters will understand clearly that all the bosses are in league.
In 1890, this fact was so little understood by the managers of an antiTammany movement which sprang up in that year that, after raising a certain stir and outcry, they put in the field a ticket made up exclusively of political hacks, whose election would have left matters exactly where they stood. The people at large, led by the soundest political instinct, reëlected Tammany Hall, and gave to sham reform the rebuff that it deserved. In 1894, after the Lexow investigation had kept the town at feverheat of indignation all summer, Mayor Strong was nominated by the Committee of Seventy, under an arrangement with Platt. The excitement was so great that the people at large did not examine Mr. Strong’s credentials. He was a Republican merchant, and in no way identified with the boss system. Mayor Strong’s administration has been a distinct advance, in many ways encouraging. Its errors and weaknesses have been so clearly traceable to the system which helped elect him that it has been in the highest degree valuable as an object-lesson. In 1895, only one year after Mayor Strong’s election, the fruits of his administration could not yet be seen. In that year a few judges and minor local officers were to be chosen. By this time the citizens’ movement ” had become a regular part of a municipal election. A group of radicals, the legatees of the Strong campaign, had for a year been enrolled in clubs called Good Government Clubs. These men took the novel course of nominating a complete ticket of their own. This was considered a dangerous move by the moderate reformers, who were headed by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce and its well-meaning supporters then took a step which, from an educational standpoint, turned out to be most important. In their terror lest Tammany Hall should gain the prestige of a by-election, they made an arrangement with Platt, and were allowed to name some candidates on his ticket. This was the famous “ fusion,” which the Good Government men attacked with as much energy as they might have expended on Tammany Hall. A furious campaign of crimination between the two reform factions followed, and of course Tammany was elected.
The difference between the Good Government men (the Goo-Goos, as they were called) and the Fusionists was entirely one of political education. The GooGoo mind had advanced to the point of seeing that Platt was a confederate of Tammany and represented one wing of the great machine. To give him money was useless ; to lend him respectability was infamous. These ideas were disseminated by the press ; and it was immaterial that they were disseminated in the form of denunciations of the Good Government Clubs. The people at large began to comprehend clearly what they had always instinctively believed. There was now a nucleus of men in the town who preferred Tammany Hall to any victory that would discredit reform.
It may be noted that the Good Government Clubs polled less than one per cent of the vote cast in that election ; and that in the recent mayoralty campaign the Citizens’ Union ran Mr. Low on the Good Government platform, and polled 150,000 votes. In this same election, the straight Republican ticket, headed by Tracy, polled 100,000 votes, and Tammany polled about as many as both its opponents together. A total of about 40,000 votes were cast for George and other candidates.
Much surprise has been expressed that there should be 100,000 Republicans in New York whose loyalty to the party made them vote a straight ticket with the certainty of electing Tammany Hall; but in truth, when we consider the history of the city, we ought rather to be surprised at the great size of the vote for Mr. Low. He was the man who arranged the fusion of 1895. It was entirely due to a lack of clear thinking and of political courage that such an arrangement was then made. Two years ago the Chamber of Commerce did not clearly understand the evils that it was fighting. Is it a wonder that 100,000 individual voters are still backward in their education ? If we discount the appeal of self-interest, which determined many of them, there are probably some 75,000 Republicans whose misguided party loyalty obscured their view and deadened their feelings. They cannot be said to hate bad government very much. They do not think Tammany Hall so very bad, after all. As the London papers said, the dog has returned to his vomit. It is unintelligent to abuse them. They are the children of the age. A few years ago we were all such as they. Of Mr. Low’s 150,000 supporters, on the other hand, there are probably at least 40,000 who would vote through thick and thin for the principles which his campaign stood for.
Any one who is a little removed by time or by distance from New York knows that the city cannot have permanent good government until a clear majority of our 500,000 voters shall develop what the economists call an “ effective desire ’’ for it. It is not enough merely to want reform. The majority must know how to get it. For educational purposes, the intelligent discussion throughout the recent campaign is worth all the effort that it cost. The Low campaign was notable in another particular. The banking and the mercantile classes subscribed liberally to the citizens’ campaign fund. They are the men who have had the most accurate knowledge of the boss system, because they support it. At last they have dared to expose it. Indeed, there was a rent in Wall Street. The great capitalists and the promoters backed Tammany and Platt, as a matter of course; but many individuals of power and importance in the street came out strongly for Low. They acted at personal risk, with courage, out of conscience. The great pendulum of wealth has swung toward decency, and henceforward the cause of political education will have money at its disposal. But the money is not the main point; the personal influence of the men who give it operates more powerfully than the money. Hereafter reform will be respectable. The professional classes are pouring into it. The young men are reëntering politics. Its victory is absolutely certain, and will not be far distant.
The effect of public-spirited activity on the character is very rapid. Here again we cannot separate the cause from the consequence ; but it is certain that the moral tone of the community is changing very rapidly for the better, and that the thousands of men who are at this moment preparing to take part in the next citizens’ campaign, and who count public activity as one of the regular occupations of their lives, are affecting the social and commercial life of New York. The young men who are working to reform politics find in it not only the satisfaction of a quasi-religious instinct, but an excitement which business cannot provide.
One effect of the commercial supremacy has been to make social life intolerably dull, by dividing people into cliques and trade unions. The millionaire dines with the millionaire, the artist with the artist, the hat-maker with the hat-maker, gentlefolk with gentlefolk. All of these sets are equally uninspiring, equally frightened at a strange face. The hierarchy of commerce is dull. The intelligent people in America are dull, because they have no contact, no social experience. Their intelligence is a clique and wears a badge. They think they are not affected by the commercialism of the times ; but their attitude of mind is precisely that of a lettered class living under a tyranny. They flock by themselves. It is certain that the cure for class feeling is public activity. The young jeweler, the young printer, and the golf-player, each, after a campaign in which they have been fighting for a principle, finds that social enjoyment lies in working with people unlike himself, for a common object. Reform movements bring men into touch, into struggle with the powers that are really shaping our destinies, and show them the sinews and bones of the social organism. The absurd social prejudices which unman the rich and the poor alike vanish in a six weeks’ campaign. Indeed, the exhilaration of real life is too much for many of the reformers. Even bankers neglect their business, and dare not meet their partners, and a dim thought crosses their minds that perhaps the most enlightened way to spend money is, not to make it, but to invest it unearned in life.
The reasons for believing that the boss system has reached its climax are manifold. Some of them have been stated, others may be noted. In the first place, the railroads are built. Business is growing more settled. The sacking of the country’s natural resources goes on at a slower pace. Concede, for the sake of argument, that it was an economic necessity for the New York Central Railroad to own the state legislature during the period of the building and consolidation of the many small roads which made up the present great system. The necessity no longer exists. Bribery, like any other crime, may be explained by an emergency ; but every one believes that bribery is not a permanent necessity in the running of a railroad, and this general belief will determine the practices of the future. Public opinion will not stand the abuses; and without the abuse where is the profit ? In many places, the old system of bribery is still being continued out of habit, and at a loss. The corporations can get what they want more cheaply by legal methods, and they are discovering this. In the second place, the boss system is now very generally understood. The people are no longer deceived. The ratio between party feeling and self-interest is changing rapidly, in the mind of the average man. It was the mania of party feeling that supported the boss system and rendered political progress impossible, and party feeling is dying out. We have seen, for instance, that those men who, by the accident of the war, were shaken in their party loyalty have been the most politically intelligent class in the nation. The Northern Democrats, who sided with their opponents to save the Union, were the first men to be weaned of party prejudice, and from their ranks, accordingly, came civil service reformers, tariff reformers, etc.
It is noteworthy, also, that the Jewish mind is active in all reform movements. The isolation of the race has saved it from party blindness, and has given scope to its extraordinary intelligence. The Hebrew prophet first put his finger on blackmail as the curse of the world, and boldly laid the charge at the door of those who profited by the abuse. It was the Jew who perceived that, in the nature of things, the rich and the powerful in a community will be trammeled up and identified with the evils of the times. The wrath of the Hebrew prophets and the arraignments of the New Testament owe part of their eternal power to their recognition of that fact. They record an economic law.
Moreover, time fights for reform. The old voters die off, and the young men care little about party shibboleths. Hence these non-partisan movements. Every election, local or national, which causes a body of men to desert their party is a blow at the boss system. These movements multiply annually. They are emancipating the small towns throughout the Union, even as commerce was once disfranchising them. As party feeling dies out in a man’s mind, it leaves him with a clearer vision. His conscience begins to affect his conduct very seriously, when he sees that a certain course is indefensible. It is from this source that the reform will come.
The voter will see that it is wrong to support the subsidized boss, just as the capitalist has already begun to recoil from the monster which he created. He sees that it is wrong at the very moment when he is beginning to find it unprofitable. The old trademark has lost its value.
The citizens’ movement is, then, a purge to take the money out of politics. The stronger the doses, the quicker the cure. If the citizens maintain absolute standards, the old parties can regain their popular support only by adopting those standards. All citizens’ movements are destined to be temporary ; they will vanish, to leave our politics purified. But the work they do is as broad as the nation.
The question of boss rule is of national importance. The future of the country is at stake. Until this question is settled, all others are in abeyance. The fight against money is a fight for permission to decide questions on their merits. The last presidential election furnished an illustration of this. At a private meeting of capitalists held in New York city, to raise money for the McKinley campaign, a very important man fervidly declared that he had already subscribed $5000 to “ buy Indiana,” and that if called on to do so he would subscribe $5000 more ! He was greeted with cheers for his patriotism. Many of our best citizens believe not only that money bought that election, but that the money was well spent, because it averted a panic. These men do not believe in republican institutions ; they have found something better.
This is precisely the situation in New York city. The men who subscribed to the McKinley campaign fund are the same men who support Tammany Hall. In 1896 they cried, “We cannot afford Bryan and his panic ! ” In 1897 the same men in New York cried, “ We cannot afford Low and reform ! ” That is what was decided in each case. Yet it is quite possible that the quickest, wisest, and cheapest way of dealing with Bryan would have been to allow him and his panic to come on, — fighting them only with arguments, which immediate consequences would have driven home very forcibly. That is the way to educate the masses and fit them for self-government; and it is the only way.
In this last election the people of New York have crippled Platt. It is a service done to the nation. Its consequences are as yet not understood ; for the public sees only the gross fact that Tammany is again in power.
But the election is memorable. It is a sign of the times. The grip of commerce is growing weaker, the voice of conscience louder. A phase in our history is passing away. That phase was predestined from the beginning.
The war did no more than intensify existing conditions, both commercial and political. It gave sharp outlines to certain economic phenomena, and made them dramatic. It is due to the war that we are now able to disentangle the threads and do justice to the nation.
The corruption that we used to denounce so fiercely and understand so little was a phase of the morality of an era which is already vanishing. It was as natural as the virtue which is replacing it; it will be a curiosity almost before we have done studying it. We see that our institutions were particularly susceptible to this disease of commercialism, and that the sickness was acute, but that it was not mortal. Our institutions survived.
John Jay Chapman.