Generosity and Corruption

SOME years ago there died in New York a politician who had been the notorious leader of one of the slum districts. During the greater part of his career, he had been the subject of the most pointed attacks by individuals and organizations interested in decent government, for he had been the enemy of everything which meant honesty in public affairs and social life. He had made money corruptly by extending his favor, under the usual arrangements, to individuals who wanted franchises for gas, electric light, and street railway operations; by affording his protection and influence to “policy men,” to pool-room gamblers and disorderly-resort proprietors. His name had been signed hundreds of times on the bail bonds of thieves and fallen women.

He was a politician of a type common enough in the great American cities, and the characteristics of his career had been long familiar to the newspaper-reading public. Yet when he died, the largest church in the district was filled with a vast crowd of mourners. As the papers said, there was not a dry eye in the church. It was genuine sorrow. For the money which his more reputable gas and railway friends from the brown-stone districts had given him had paid many an old woman’s rent, had helped many a friend in trouble. The “protection” money had been freely given to the outings and games of the social organizations of the district. His “pull” had always been available for the man who wanted a job. The money of Peter had gone to an army of Pauls, and the great robber baron had died comparatively poor. He had been a public enemy — with a big heart; dishonest — and generous.

There are two lines in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King which seem to embody a kind of fascinating puzzle.

“ . . . God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the
world.”

How can any custom which is good be corrupting? Can there be a dangerous virtue ? Considerable rumination has persuaded the writer into giving an affirmative answer to the question, the episode of the funeral of the District Leader being only one of the cases in point which have led to this conclusion.

The foundation of healthy, sane life, and of right public law and government is justice. This is trite and platitudinous enough, but it is dangerous to forget it. The departed District Leader got his power in life and his apology and defense in death from the fact that throughout his career he ignored or abused all known notions of justice — and was generous instead.

There is a certain dramatic quality in generosity which appeals to the heart. A mean rascal we all despise and hate; but a rascal with a big heart, who never forgets his friends, finds many apologists. It is of the utmost importance to a country organized, like ours, on a democratic basis, that as a people we should be highly sensitive to injustice. That sensitiveness is the most necessary protection for freedom, the greatest force for good government. Anything which tends to befog our ideals of justice, or to make us underestimate its importance, is a danger to be guarded against.

In the latter days of Rome, the darlings of the rabble were the oppressors of Africa, who transmuted the sweat and blood of conquered provinces into bread and circuses for the Roman mob. Justice, long since dead in the imperial city, had been succeeded by a riot, of generosity of the most lavish and barbaric kind. It would be, of course, a jaundiced eye which should make any but a most distant parallel between the Roman rabble and the American people. But much, if not everything, is forgiven the millionaire whose fortune has been wrung from the overtempted consciences of aldermen, if he recognizes what the college presidents call “The Responsibility of Men of Wealth.”

As a people we have fairly good taste in our attitude toward the philanthropy which finds its root in fraud and unjust enrichment. If a traction magnate or a tricky financier gives us a hospital or art gallery, we do not cry in an offensive chorus, “Where did he get the money ?” We accept with a philosophic gratitude anything given back to us collectively which was stolen from us individually, for the excellent reason that, the ill-gotten booty having been once acquired by the great operator, it is a public good fortune that his expenditure of it should in some degree take the form of public gift, rather than of private wassail and ostentatious extravagance. The great man, we say, was not obliged to spend anything on public charity. His fortune,by whatever devious, crooked ways acquired, is, so far as the legal title is concerned, his, and not ours; and so any portion of it which he may choose to transmute into public service is a just cause for general rejoicing. It all goes to confirm our faith that there are bowels of compassion and spots of virtue in the worst of men, even in our most inveterate millionaires. Having accepted the gift, we refuse to vilify the donor.

One of the effects of the generosity of the unjust, which deserves more consideration than it gets, is this: it closes the mouths of critics whose voices might otherwise be heard in effectual protest against public wrongs or defects which cry for change in economic conditions. Limitation of space confines the writer to one illustration.

There was public agitation some years ago concerning a certain bill, involving a franchise of great value, which was being heavily lobbied through the New York legislature. A movement was at once begun against the measure, and during its progress a gentleman standing justly high in public esteem, a man of unquestionable probity and of great influence, was asked to take part in this protest. He remained in doubt for a few days, and then declined. He was the president of an important charitable institution dependent largely for its support on the generosity of a particular donor who was also the real sponsor for the grab bill. With what he conceived to be the prosperity of his institution at stake, he could not feel it to be his duty personally to antagonize the corrupt scheme of the generous supporter of his institution. Other able men, he argued readily, could be obtained to do the work which, under the peculiar circumstances, he must refuse to do himself. The gain which the opposition to the lobby for the bill might make by his influence did not seem to him at all equal to the quite probable loss which he felt might come to his institution by such offensive action on his part.

Now this man is normally, and when not subject to peculiar and perplexing circumstances, neither weak nor timid, but quite the contrary. In this particular case he simply had been called on to decide a hard problem. His decision was undoubtedly wrong from an abstract moral standpoint; but in view of the great responsibility which he felt for the welfare of his institution, his error was at least pardonable. He was a man whose silence could not have been bought by any personal consideration. Yet the generosity of a public enemy to his particular institution of charity had effectually closed his mouth.

Just how far the loss of influence of the city churches is due to similar conditions, it is hard to say. To the writer there seems to be a certain tendency among the great metropolitan churches, to plan their expenditures on the basis of the largest amount which may be expected from the richest parishoner. So that in case any two or three heavy contributors should for some reason terminate abruptly their donations, the work of the church would be practically crippled. With the finances of the church built on such a foundation, it is hardly surprising that the sharp edge of pulpit criticism should be dulled, or should find expression, if at all, in innocuous and ineffectual generalities that keep up the brave showof a spiritual independence which has been long since smothered by charity.

The medical world to-day is full of learned talk about germ diseases, and the great scientists are constantly increasing the fund of human knowledge as to how these germs are to be destroyed, or their perpetuation retarded. If it were only possible for some spiritual scientist to devise some workable scheme to prevent in the moral world the perpetuation of perverted ideals! We read much to-day of the Great White Plague, — tuberculosis, — and how it breeds and spreads in the tenements, destroying its thousands. But the Great White Plague in the rich man’s university, the germ of moral tuberculosis in the ideal of success, avoids the microscope.

After all,the principal use of the college is as a place where the next generation is to get right ideas of what is worth while in life itself. The academic facts which to the ignorant seem the advantages of education are of minor importance. We hear much during the season of college commencements of the necessities of the modern university in the way of enlarged endowments and increased equipment. Some of this talk is, of course, reasonable enough. It is addressed mainly to the rich as a demand for the recognition by them of a duty of generosity, one which in our days has had a most remarkable response. But apparatus is an impossible substitute for ideals, and the best endowment of a college is the character of its graduates. The two-thousand-dollar bequest, for example, to his Alma Mater, which the will of the late William H. Baldwin contained, was small if considered as a mere matter of money, but his character and the ideals of public service which his life expressed form part of that permanent endowment which alone makes a university great. The memory of a railroad president ready to sacrifice, if need be, his position, rather than lose an opportunity for usefulness on an unpaid committee of citizens banded together for important civic service, is a rarer and more precious contribution to the fibre of university life than any mere material bounty from ravenous fingers unclutched by hypocrisy or the fear of death.

The principal criticism of the generosity to colleges of men whose great fortunes have been obtained by doubtful methods and through suspicious sources is not alone that their money comes coupled with their own personal history, nor that the hope of their favor has an undesirable influence on certain forms of college teaching and on the public utterance of college officials, but that these gifts of brick and mortar and money have a tendency to make the ideal endowment seem less valuable and important. We cannot afford to have the traditions of our colleges become largely the traditions of suspiciously rich men who made money and built buildings.

It seems like the mere hyperbole of a jealous and disappointed spirit to affirm that the corrupt practices of the unjustly rich are less harmful than their benevolences; but the statement will bear argument and furnish much reason for a belief in its accuracy. It is because this benevolence tends to create in the popular mind confusion on a matter of morals concerning which we cannot afford to have confusion. We cannot afford to believe that the seizing of special and unjust privileges, or the use of corrupt practices or oppression, by which enormous wealth is increasingly acquired, may be excused or palliated by public gift or private benevolence, or by generosity, however bountiful. We cannot afford to let a delayed or partial restitution acquire a false glamour, and under a false name become a substitute for common honesty.

There is no place where the substitution of generosity for justice is a greater evil than in the courts. The great delay which frequently occurs in the selection of jurors in law cases is due to the endeavor of one or the other of the opposing lawyers — rarely of both — to pick out jurors who will deal justly with the rights of litigants and who will not be merely generous at the expense of justice. The task of selecting such jurors is increasingly difficult, particularly in accident cases against railways. The injustice which results from the corrupt granting of railway franchises, for example, has a larger area than is generally supposed. There is a strong tendency manifested in juries to even up this original injustice by a generosity which is itself unjust. For injustice almost invariably begets a spurious generosity.

The writer listened some years ago in the New York Supreme Court to the trial of an accident case brought by the widow and children of a man who had been killed by the street railway which runs on Broadway, to recover damages from the railroad company for having caused his death. The widow produced only one witness, and his testimony was clearly perjury from start to finish, while four reputable bystanders called by the railroad clearly showed that the accident had been the result of the recklessness of the deceased; yet the jury after some delay brought in a large verdict for the widow and the children. One of the jurors explained his verdict thus: “The railroad company got on to Broadway by putting up a little money to a bunch of aldermen. They got their franchise for next to nothing, and that woman and four children have as good a right to their money as the road has to its franchise. With all the money the road gets out of Broadway, they can afford to do something for that man’s family, and I am glad we had a chance to give them the verdict. I could not go home and tell my wife that I had a chance to give some railroad money to a widow and four children, and did not do it. She would put me out of the house.”

The railway companies complain bitterly, and often with much reason, of the injustice done by such verdicts, but they forget the original injustice which these juries blindly, blunderingly, and unjustly seek to correct.

In politics, as we all know, the worst class of politicians, the one whose power for evil is the hardest to overcome, is the class in which corruption is coated with the whitewash of generosity, — the legislative burglar with a big heart. The logrolling which is the bane of our politics is nothing more nor less than the exchange of generosities by public servants at public expense, and a large part of bad lawmaking is the result of the unjustifiable favors which one unconscionably kindhearted statesman extends to another.

It is, of course, a mean soul which is not warmed by generosity and benevolence and the expression through such acts of the larger humanities. In comparison with true generosity, justice seems meagre and mean, as the cold working of the intellect rather than the warm pulsation of the heart. Justice, mere justice, never satisfies. Aristides the Just was killed by the Greeks, not because he was just, but because he was nothing but just. From fibre like his, heroes are not made. The natural man much prefers Robin Hood. Without generosity the moral world seems dull, gray, cold, and conventional. It lacks sap and vitality, and the imagination is not touched. But, after all, justice is the rock on which alone generosity can safely build, and when it seeks some other foundation, it is the scriptural house built on the sand, and like it cannot endure.