The Second-Rate Man in Politics

In our great modern States, where the scale of things is so large, it does seem as if the remnant might be so increased as to become an actual power, even though the majority be unsound. — MATTHEW ARNOLD: Numbers,


WHO governs America?

The answer is obvious: we are a republic, a representative democracy enjoying the utmost government of, for, and by the people. America is governed by persons we choose by our own volition to serve us, to make, execute, and interpret laws for us. Addicted as we are to the joy of phrases, we find in these clichés unfailing delight.

Democracy, ideally considered, is an affair of the wisest and best. As the privileges of the ballot are generously extended to all, the whole people1 are invested with an initiative and authority which it is their duty to exercise. Presumably all are proud of their inheritance of liberty, jealous of their power, and alert in performing all the duties of citizenship. That we are not, in fact, highly successful in realizing this ideal is a matter that is giving increasing concern to thoughtful Americans.

As these words are read thousands of candidates are before the electorate for consideration, and the patriotic citizen is imaginably possessing himself of all available information regarding them, determined to vote only for the most desirable. The parties have done their best, or worst, as we choose to view the matter, and it is ‘up to the people’ to accept or reject those who offer themselves for place. The citizen is face to face with the problem, Shall he vote for candidates he knows to be unfit, merely to preserve his regularity, or shall he cast his ballot for the fittest men without respect to the party emblems on his ballot? Opposed to the conscientious voter, and capable of defeating his purpose, are agencies and influences with which it is well-nigh impossible for him to cope. The higher his intelligence and the nobler his aim, the less he is able to reckon with forces which are stubbornly determined to nullify his vote.

The American voter is not normally independent; it is only when there has been some marked affront to a party’s intelligence or moral sense that we observe any display of independence. Independent movements are always reassuring and encouraging. The revolt against Blaine in 1884, the GoldDemocratic movement in 1896, were most significant; and I am disposed to give a somewhat similar value to the Progressive movement of 1912. But the average voter is a creature of prejudice, who boasts jauntily that he never scratches his ticket. He follows his party with dogged submission and is more or less honestly blind to its faults.

As my views on this subject are more usually voiced by independents than by partisans, it may not be amiss to say that I am a party man, a Democrat; that I voted for Parker in 1904, for Bryan in 1908, and am ‘ regular ’ enough in local contests to retain my right to vote with a good conscience in primary elections. Living in a state where there is no point of rest in politics, where one campaign dovetails into another, I have for twenty-five years been an observer of political tendencies and methods. I may say of the two great parties, as Ingersoll remarked of the life beyond, ‘I have friends in both places.’ One of my best friends was a ‘boss’ who served a term in prison for scratching a tally-sheet. I am perfectly familiar with the theories upon which bossism is justified, the more plausible being that only by maintaining strong local organizations, that is to say, Machines, can a party so entrench itself as to support effectively the policies and reforms dear to the heart of the idealist. And bosses do, indeed, sometimes use their power benevolently, though this happens usually where they see a chance to win advantage or to allay popular clamor.

It is not of the pending campaign that I write, and any references I make to it are only for the purpose of illustrating phases or tendencies that seem worthy of consideration at a time when public thought is concentrated upon politics. And to give definite aim to this inquiry I shall state it in the harshest terms possible: —

We, a self-governing people, permit our affairs to be administered, very largely, by second-rate men.

Our hearts throb indignantly as we ponder this. The types have a queer look. Such an accusation is an unpardonable sin against American institutions, — against an intelligent, highminded citizenry. It can, however, do no harm to view the matter from various angles to determine whether anything really may be adduced in support of it.


In theory the weight of the majority is with the fit. This is the pleasantest of ideas, but it is not true. It is not true at least in so great a number of contests as to justify any virtuous complacency in the electorate. It is probably no more untrue now than in other years, though the cumulative effect of a long experience of government by the unfit is having its effect upon the nation in discouraging faith in that important and controlling function of government that has to do with the choice and election of candidates. Only rarely — and I speak carefully — do the best men possible for a given office ever reach it. The best men are never even considered for thousands of state, county, and municipal elective offices; they do not offer themselves, either because office-holding is distasteful, or because private business is more lucrative, or because they are aware of no demand for their services on the part of their fellow citizens. By fitness I mean the competence produced by experience and training, fortified with moral character and a sense of responsibility. I should say that a fit man for public office is one who in his private affairs has established some reputation for efficiency and trustworthiness.

In assuming that a democracy like ours presupposes in the electorate a desire, no matter how feeble, to intrust public affairs to men of fitness, to first-rate men, it would seem that with the approach of every presidential campaign numbers of possible candidates would receive consideration as eligible to our highest office. It will be said that just as many candidates were available in 1916 as at any other period in our history, but this is neither conclusive nor heartening; there should be more! It cannot be pretended that public service does not attract thousands of men; it can, however, be complained that the offices fall very largely to the inferior.

We have just witnessed the spectacle of a great republic, which confides the broadest powers to its chief executive, strangely limited in its choice of candidates for the presidency to a handful of men. No new commanding figure had sprung forward from the ranks of either party in the most trying period the country has known in fifty years. If Mr. Wilson’s renomination had not been inevitable, it would be very difficult to name another Democrat who, by virtue of demonstrated strength and public confidence, would have been able to enter the lists against him. Our only Democratic presidents since the Civil War stepped from a governor’s seat to the higher office; but I know of no Democratic governor who, in 1916, could have entered the national convention supported by any appreciable public demand for his nomination. And no Democratic Senator could have debated Mr. Wilson’s claims to further recognition. Speaker Clark, with the prestige of his maximum 556 votes on the tenth ballot of the Baltimore Convention, might have been able to reappear at St. Louis with a similar showing; but the Democratic range of possibilities certainly had not widened. To be sure, Mr. Bryan would have remained to reckon with; but, deeply as the party and the country is indebted to him for his courageous stand against the bosses at Baltimore, he could hardly have received a fourth nomination.

The Republicans ware in no better case when their convention met at Chicago. The Old Guard was stubbornly resolved, not only that Mr. Roosevelt should not be nominated, but that he should not dictate the choice of a Republican candidate. A short distance from the scene of their deliberations, the Progressives, having failed to establish themselves as a permanent contestant of the older parties, tenaciously clung to their leader. Mr. Roosevelt’s effort to interest the Republicans in Senator Lodge as a compromise candidate fell upon deaf ears. Mr. Hughes’s nomination was a part of the cut-and-dried programme which the high powers carried to Chicago. Mr. Hughes’s high qualifications may not be seriously questioned. He is a first-rate man, and the lack of enthusiasm with which his nomination was received by the perfectly ordered and controlled body of delegates is not to his discredit. Sore beset, the Old Guard put forth a candidate little to their taste, one who, if elected, would, we must assume, prove quite impatient of the cramped harness fashioned for presidents by the skilled armorers of the good old days of backward-looking Republicanism.

In taking from the bench a gentleman who was ‘out of politics’ the Republicans emphasized their lamentable lack of available candidates. Nothing was ever sadder than the rollcall of states for the nomination of ‘favorite sons.’ Estimable though these men are, no one could have listened to the nominating speeches and witnessed the subsequent mechanical demonstrations without depression. None of these nominees had the slightest chance; the orators who piped their little lays in praise of them knew they had not; the vast audience that witnessed the proceedings, perfectly aware of the farcical nature of these banalities, knew they had not, and viewed the show with contemptuous amusement.

The heartiness of the reception accorded Messrs. Depew and Cannon, who were called upon to entertain the audience during a lull in the proceedings, was not without its pathos. They dwelt upon the party’s past glories with becoming poignancy. Mr. Borah, tactfully projected as a representative of a newer order of Republicanism, was far less effective. The convention was greatly stirred by no new voice; no new leader flashed upon the stage to quicken it to new and high endeavor. No less inspired or inspiring body of men ever gathered than those who constituted the Republican Convention of 1916.

I asked a successful lawyer the other day how he accounted for the lack of presidential timber. ‘It’s because the average American would rather be president of the Pennsylvania Railroad than of the United States,’he answered. And it is true, beyond question, that our highest genius is employed in commerce and business rather than in politics. If we, the people, do not seek means of promoting administrative wisdom and efficiency in our government we shall pay one of these days a high price for our indifference. There is danger ahead unless we are disposed to take our politics more seriously, and unless more young men of the best talent and the highest aims can be lured into public life. The present showing is certainly not encouraging as to the future of American statesmanship; and to say that the fit have always been few, is not a particularly consoling answer.

It is true of a period still susceptible of intimate scrutiny — say, from the Civil War — that presidential candidates have been chosen in every case from a small group of potentialities in both parties. We have established (stupidly in any large view of the matter) geographical limitations upon the possible choice that greatly narrow the field. Candidates for the presidency must be chosen, with an eye to the local effect, from states essential to success. Though Mr. Blaine’s candidacy was surrounded by unusual circumstances, it emphasizes, nevertheless, the importance to the parties of nominating men from the ‘pivotal’ states. We have had no New England president since Franklin Pierce. This is not because the New England states have not produced men of fitness, but is attributable solely to the small representation of the Northeastern states in the Electoral College.

The South, likewise, has long been eliminated from the reckoning. Though of Virginia birth, Mr. Wilson is distinctly not ‘a Southern man’ in the familiar connotations of that term. In old times the Southern states contributed men of the first rank to both houses of Congress; but, apart from Mr. Underwood (who received 1171/2 votes at Baltimore) and Mr. John Sharp Williams, there are no Southerners of conspicuous attainments in the present Senate. The Southern bar embraces now, perhaps as truly as at any earlier period, lawyers of distinguished ability, but they apparently do not find public life attractive.

No president has yet been elected from beyond the Mississippi, though Mr. Bryan, thrice a candidate, widened the area of choice westward. In the present year, Governor Johnson and Senator Borah were the only transMississippi men mentioned as possibilities, and they cut no figure in the contest. We are still a congeries of states, or groups of states, rather than a nation, with a resulting political provincialism that is disheartening when we consider the economic and political power we wield increasingly in world-affairs.

It is a serious commentary upon the talent of recent congresses that the House has developed no men so commanding as to awaken speculation as to their availability for the presidency. No member of the House figured this year in Republican presidential speculations. Why do the second-rate predominate in a body that may be called the most typical of our institutions? Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, Blaine, McKinley, Bryan, all candidates for the presidency, had been members of the House, but it has become negligible as a training school for presidents. A year ago Mr. Mann received an occasional honorable mention, but his petulant fling at the President as ‘playing politics,’ in the grave hour following the dispatch of the final note to Germany, effectually silenced his admirers. Admirable as partisanship may be, there are times when even an opposition floor-leader should be able to rise above it! Nor is it possible for Democrats to point to Mr. Kitchin with any degree of pride. Of both these men it may be said that never have leaders failed so lamentably to rise to their opportunities. Mr. Hay, of Virginia, Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, not only yielded reluctantly to the public pressure for preparedness, but established his unfitness to hold any office by tacking on the Army bill a ‘ joker ’ designed to create a place for a personal friend. Mr. Wilson, like Mr. Cleveland, has found his congresses unruly or wobbly, or egregiously stupid, manifesting astonishingly little regard for their party principles or policies. The present majority has been distinguished for nothing so much as impotence and parochialism.

Without respect to party, the average Representative’s vision is no wider than his district, and he ponders national affairs solely from a selfish standpoint. Through long years we have used him as an errand-boy, a pension agent, a beggar at the national till. His time is spent in demonstrating to his constituency that when ‘pork’ is being served he is on hand with Oliver Twist’s plate. The people of one district, proud of their new post-office, or rejoicing in the appearance of a government contractor’s dredge in their creek, do not consider that their devoted Congressman, to insure his own success, has been obliged to assist other members in a like pursuit of spoils, and that the whole nation bears the burden.

The member who carries a map of his district with him to Washington, and never broadens his horizon, is a relic of simpler times. In days like these we can ill-afford to smile with our old tolerance at the ‘plain man of the people’ who is likely to be just a demagogue. A frock coat and a kind heart are not in themselves qualifications for a congressman. Eccentricity, proudly vaunted, whimsicalities of speech, lofty scorn of conventions, have all been sadly overworked. Talent of the first order is needed in Congress; it is no place for men who can’t see and think straight.

The Senate preserves at least something of its old competence, and the country respects, I think, the hard work recently performed by it. While its average is low, it contains men — some of them little in the public eye — who are specialists in certain fields. There is, I believe, a general feeling that, with our tremendous industrial and commercial interests, the presence in the upper house of a considerable number of business men and of rather fewer lawyers would make for a better balanced and more representative body. A first-rate senator need not be an orator. The other day, when Senator Taggart, a new member, protested vigorously against the latest River-andHarbor swindle the country applauded. Refreshing, indeed, to hear a new voice in those sacred precincts raised against waste and plunder! Senator Oliver of Pennsylvania, a protectionist, of course, is probably as well informed on the tariff as any man in America. I give him the benefit of this advertisement the more cheerfully as I do not agree with his views; but his information is entitled to all respect. The late David Turpie, of Indiana, by nature a recluse, and one of the most unassuming men who ever sat in the Senate, was little known to the country at large. I once heard Mr. Roosevelt and Judge Gray of Delaware engage in a most interesting exchange of anecdotes illustrative of Mr. Turpie’s wide range of information. He was a first-rate man. There is room in the Senate for a great variety of talent, and its efficiency is not injured by the frequent injection of new blood. What the country is impatient of in the upper house is dead men who have little information and no opinions of value on any subject — the second-rate man. The election of senators directly by the people will have in November its first trial — another advance toward pure democracy. We shall soon be able to judge whether the electorate, acting independently, is more to be trusted than the legislatures.

I should be sorry to apply any words of President Wilson in a quarter where he did not intend them, but a paragraph of his address to the Washington correspondents (May 15) might well be taken to heart by a number of gentlemen occupying seats in the legislative branch of the government.

‘I have a profound intellectual contempt for men who cannot see the signs of the times. I have to deal with some men who know no more of the modern processes of politics than if they were living in the eighteenth century, and for them I have a profound and comprehensive intellectual contempt. They are blind; they are hopelessly blind; and the worst of it is I have to spend hours of my time talking to them when I know before I start as much2 as if I had finished, that it is absolutely useless to talk to them. I am talking in vacuo.’

There are, indisputably, limitations upon the patience of a first-rate man engaged in the trying occupation of attempting to communicate a first-rate idea to a second-rate mind.


In recent years our periodical literature has devoted much space to discussions of problems of efficiency. We have heard repeatedly of the demand, not for two-thousand-dollar men, but for ten-, twenty-, and fifty-thousanddollar men, in the great industries. The efficiency engineer has sprung into being; in my own city several hundred employees of an automobile company are organized into a class of which a professor of psychology is the leader, the purpose being the promotion of individual and corporate efficiency. The first-rate man is in demand, as a buyer, a salesman, a foreman, a manager. One of the largest corporations in America pays its employees bonuses apportioned on a basis of their value as displayed from month to month. The minutest economies are a matter of daily study in every manufacturing and commercial house; the hunt for the first-rate man is unceasing. Executive ability, a special genius for buying and selling, need never go unrecognized. Recently a New York bank spent months searching for a bond-seller, and finally chose an obscure young man from a Western town who fell by chance under the eye of a ‘scout’ sent out to look for talent. But this eager search for the first-rate man, so marked in commerce and industry, only rarely touches our politics. It is only in politics that the second-rate man finds the broadest field for the exercise of his talents.

A president is beset by many embarrassments in the exercise of the appointing power. Our feudal system, by which senators and representatives are the custodians of post-offices, district attorneyships, marshalships, and countless other positions, does not make for the recognition of the fit. While the power to appoint is vested in the executive, his choice must be approved by the senators or representatives. As the system operates, it is not really the president who appoints but the senators, or, in minor offices, the representatives, and the president is expected to meet their wishes. To question their recommendations is to arouse animosity, and where the fate of important legislation hangs in the balance a president is under strong temptation to accept the recommendation of second-rate men in order to keep the members of the law-making bodies in good humor.

In the professions and industries, in commercial houses, even on the farm, the second-rate man is not wanted; but political jobs, high and low, are everywhere open to him. Everything but the public service is standardized; politics alone puts a premium upon inferiority. The greatest emphasis is laid upon the word service in every field but government. The average American ‘wants what he wants when he wants it,’ and is proud of his ability to get it. ‘If it is n’t right, we make it right,’ is a popular business slogan. Hotels whose indifferent service wins the displeasure of the traveling public are execrated and blacklisted. On the other hand, I have listened for hours to the laudation of good hotels, of the efficiency of railroads, of automobile manufacturers who ‘give good service.’ We have a pride in these things; we like to relate incidents of our successful ‘ kick ’ when the berth that we had reserved by telegraph was n’t forthcoming and how we ‘took it up’ with the railroad authorities, and how quickly our wounded feelings were poulticed. ‘I guess that won’t happen again on that road!’ we chortle. Conversely we make our errands to a city hall or courthouse as few as possible, knowing that the ‘ service,’ conducted at the people’s expense, is of a different order, and public officials may not be approached in that confident spirit with which we carry our needs or complaints to the heads of a private business.

Or, if some favor is to be asked, we brag that we have seen ‘Jim’ or ‘Bob’ and that he ‘fixed’ it for us. It happens not infrequently that we want something ‘fixed’ from purely selfish motives, — something that should not be ‘fixed,’—and it gives us a pleasurable sense of our ‘influence’ to know that, as we have always treated ‘Jim’ or ‘ Bob ’ all right, ‘ Jim ’ or ‘ Bob ’ cheerfully assists us. We chuckle over the ease with which he accomplished the fixing where it would have been impossible for us to effect it through a direct legitimate appeal. Thus in hundreds of ways a boss, great or small, is able to grant favors that cost him nothing, thereby blurring the vision of those he places under obligations to the means by which he gains his power.

In municipal government the secondand the third-rate man, on down to a point where differentiations fade to the vanishing point, finds his greatest hope and security. As first-rate men are not ‘available’ for the offices, they fall naturally to the inferior, the incompetent, or the corrupt. In few cities of a hundred thousand population is a man of trained ability and recognized fitness ever seriously considered for the mayoralty. Modern city government, with the broad powers conferred upon mayors, requires fitness of the highest order. Usually without experience of large affairs, and crippled at the start by a well-established tradition that he must reward party workers and personal friends, the incumbent surrounds himself with second-and third-rate men, for whose incompetency the taxpayer meekly pays the bills.

The mayor’s office is hardly second to the presidency in the variety of its perplexities. A man of the highest aims will fail to satisfy a whole community. There is in every city a group of reformers who believe that a mayor should be able to effect the moral regeneration of the human race in one term of office. The first-rate man is aware of this, and the knowledge diminishes his anxiety to seek the place. A common indictment against the capable man who volunteers for municipal service is that his ignorance of political methods would make him ‘impractical’ if he were elected. This sentiment is expressed frequently — often by large taxpayers. The insinuation is that a man of character and ideals would be unable to deal with the powers that prey by indirection. This is quite true: the fit man, the first-rate man, who would undertake the office untrammeled by political obligations, would not know the ‘good fellows’ who must be dealt with in a spirit of leniency. This delicate duty is more safely intrusted to one who brings a certain sympathy to bear upon the task.

Whatever may be the merits of party government in its national application, there is no sound argument for its continuance in municipal affairs. Its effect is to discourage, utterly, in most communities, any effort the firstrate man may be absurd enough to make to win enough of the franchises of his fellow citizens to land him in the mayoralty. On one occasion a Republican United States Senator, speaking for his party’s candidate for the mayoralty at the last rally of a campaign in my own city, declared that his party must win, as defeat would have a discouraging effect on Republicans elsewhere. A few years ago both parties chose, in the Indianapolis primaries, mayoralty candidates of conspicuous unfitness. The Republican candidate was an auctioneer, whose ready tongue and drolleries on the stump made him the central figure in a highly picturesque campaign. He was successful and the affairs of a city of a quarter of a million people were cheerfully turned over to him. Ignorant of the very terminology in which municipal affairs are discussed, he avoided embarrassment by remaining away from his office as much as possible. In the last year of his administration — if so dignified a term may be applied to his incumbency — he resigned, to avoid the responsibility of dealing with disorders consequent upon a serious strike, and took refuge on the vaudeville stage, from which, I understand, he threatens to run again! He was no more unfit on the day he resigned than on the day of his nomination or election — a fact of which the electorate had ample knowledge. He was chosen merely because he was a vote-getter. Republicans voted for him to preserve their regularity.

I am prolonging these comments on municipal government for the reason that the city as a political factor is of so great influence in the state and nation, and because the domination of the unfit in the smaller unit offers more tangible instances for study. The impediments encountered by the fit who offer themselves for public service are many, and often ludicrous. Twice, in Indianapolis, men of the highest standing have yielded under pressure to a demand that they offer themselves for the Republican mayoralty nomination. Neither had the slightest intention of using the mayoralty as a stepping-stone to higher office; the motives animating both were the highest. One of them was quickly disposed of by the report sent ‘down the line’ that he had not been as regular as he might be, and by this token was an undesirable candidate. The other was subjected to a crushing defeat in the primary. There was nothing against him except that he was unknown to the ‘boys in the trenches. ’

From the window by which I write I can see the chimneys of the flourishing industry conducted by the first of these gentlemen. He has constantly shown his public spirit in the most generous fashion; he is an admirable citizen. I dare say there is not an incompetent man or woman on his pay-roll. If he were out of employment and penniless to-morrow, scores of responsible positions would be open to him. But the public would not employ him; his own party would not even permit its membership to express its opinion of him; and had he gone before the electorate he would in all likelihood have been defeated by an invincible combination of every element of incompetence and venality in the city.

The other gentleman, who began life as a bank clerk, made a success of a commercial business, and is now president of one of the largest banks in the state. Such men are ineligible for municipal office; they are first-rate men; the very fact that they are men of character and ability who could be trusted to manage public affairs as they conduct their private business, removes them at once from consideration.

Such experiences as these are not calculated to encourage the capable man, the first-rate man, to attempt to gain a public position. In fact, it is the business of political organizations to make the defeat of such men as humiliating as possible. They must be got rid of; they must be taught better manners!

The good-nature with which we accept the second-rate man in municipal office is one of the most bewildering of all our political phenomena. ‘Well, things have always been this way, and I guess they always will be,’ expresses the average citizen’s feeling about the matter. As he cannot, without much personal discomfort, change the existing order, he finds solace in the reflection that he could n’t do anything about it if he tried. The more intolerant he is of second-rate employees in his own business, the more supinely he views the transfer of public business from one set of incompetents to another.

To lift municipal government out of politics in states where the party organizations never shut up shop but are ceaselessly plotting and planning to perfect their lines, is manifestly no easy task, but it may be accomplished by effective leadership where the people are sincerely interested. And it is significant that the present movement for an abandonment of the old pernicious, costly system took rise from the dire calamities that befell two cities — Galveston and Dayton — which were suddenly confronted with problems that it would have been madness to intrust to incompetents. This illustrates a point overlooked by that large body of Americans who refuse to bring to their politics the test of fitness that they enforce in private business. The second-rate man may successfully hide his errors in normal conditions, but his faults and weaknesses become glaringly apparent when any severe demands are made upon him.

I can suggest no permanent solution of the problem of municipal government that does not embrace the training of men for its particular duties. A development of the city-manager plan, of nation-wide scope, fortified by special courses of training, may ultimately solve it.


The debauchery of young men by the bosses is a familiar phase of our politics and is most potent in the game of checking the advance of the fit and assuring domination by the unfit. Several thousand young men leave college every year with some hope of entering upon a political career. By the time a young man is graduated he has elected to follow the banner of some party. If he lives in a city and shows a disposition to be of practical service, he is warmly welcomed into the fold of one of the organizations. He quickly becomes aware that only by the display of a servile obedience and following of the leaders can he expect to become persona grata to the party powers. By the time he has passed through one campaign as a trusted member of a Machine, his political illusions are wellnigh destroyed. His childish beliefs that only the fit should be elevated to positions of responsibility, that public office is a public trust, are pretty well dissipated. ‘Good’ men, he finds, are good only by the tests of partisanship as applied by the bosses. To strike at a boss is lèse majesté, and invites drastic punishment.

The purpose of the young men’s political clubs everywhere is to infuse the young voter with the spirit of blind obedience and subjection. He is graciously permitted to serve on club committees as a step toward more important recognition as ward committeeman, or is given a place of some sort at headquarters during the campaign. There are dozens of ways in which the willing young man may be of use. His illusions rapidly vanish. He is flattered by the attentions of the bosses, who pat him on the back and assure him that they appreciate his loyal devotion to the party. With the hope of preferment before him it is essential that he establish as quickly as possible a reputation for ‘regularity.’ If his wise elders note any restiveness, any tendency toward independence, they at once warn him that he must ‘ play the game straight’ and shut his eyes to the sins of his party. Or if his counselors sympathize with his predicament they advise him that the only way he can gain a position from which to make his ideas effective is by strongly establishing his regularity and building up a personal following.

In a campaign preliminary to a local primary in my city I appealed to a number of young men of good antecedents and rather exceptional education, to oppose a particular candidate. One of them, on coming home from an eastern university, had introduced himself to me in the name of a great educator who was one of my particular admirations. In every one of these cases I was politely rebuffed. They said the gentleman whose ambitions annoyed me was a ‘good fellow’ and ‘all right’; they could n’t see that any good would come of antagonizing him. And they were right. No good did come of it so far as the result was concerned.

There are countless ways in which a young lawyer finds his connection with a machine helpful. A word in the right quarter brings him a client — a saloonkeeper, perhaps, who is meeting with resistance in his effort to secure a renewal of his license; or petty criminal cases before magistrates — easily arranged where the machine controls the police. He cannot fail to be impressed with the perfection of a system that so smoothly wields power by indirection. The mystery of it all, the potency of the names of the high powers, appeal to his imagination; there is a something of romance in it. A deputyship in the office of the prosecuting attorney leads on to a seat in the legislature, and he may go to Congress if he is ‘good.’ He is purchased with a price, bought, and paid for; his status is fixed; he is a second-rate man. And by every such young man in America the ideal of Democracy, the hope of Republican government, is just so much weakened.


Government by the unfit, domination by the inferior, is greatly assisted by a widely accepted superstition — the belief that a second-rate man, finding himself in a position of responsibility, is likely to display undreamed-of powers. The idea seems to be that the electorate, by a kind of laying on of hands, confers fitness where none has previously existed. Unfortunately such miracles are not frequent enough to form the basis of a political philosophy. Recourse to the recall as a means of getting rid of an undesirable office-holder strikes me as only likely to increase the indifference, the languor, with which we now perform our political duties.

Contempt for the educated man, a preposterous assumption that by the very fact of his training he is unfitted for office, continues to be prevalent in many minds. Conscious of this disqualification, President Wilson finds amusement at times in referring to himself as a schoolmaster; much criticism of his administration is based upon the melancholy fact that he is a ‘professor,’ a scholar, as though a lifelong student of history and politics were disqualified, by the very fact of his preparation, for exalted office.

The direct primary, as a means of assisting first-rate men to office, has not yet realized what was hoped for it, and there is growing skepticism as to its efficacy. It is one of our marked national failings that we expect laws and systems to work automatically. If the first-rate man cherishes the delusion that he need only offer himself to his fellow partisans and they will delightedly spring to his support, he is doomed to a sad awakening. Unless he has taken the precaution to ask the ‘organization’s’ permission to put his name on the ballot and is promised support, he must perfect an organization of his own with which to make his fight in the primary. He must open ‘ headquarters ’ from which to carry on his operations, make speeches before as many citizens as can be assembled to hear him, enlist and pay helpers, most of whom expect jobs in case he is successful. He must drop money into palms of whose existence he never dreamed, the recipients of his bounty being frequently ‘scouts’ from his opponents’ camps. The blackmailing of candidates by charitable organizations — and churches are not without shame in this particular — is only one of a thousand annoyances. He is not likely to enjoy immunity from newspaper attack. Months of time and much money are required for a primary campaign. I venture the assertion that many hundreds of candidates for office in this year of grace began their campaigns for election already encumbered by debts incurred in winning their nominations, which brought them only half-way to the goal. Such a burden, with all its connotations of curtailed liberty and shackling obligations, may not be viewed with equanimity. Instead of making office-holding more attractive to the first-rate man, the direct primary multiplies its discouragements.

The second-rate man, being willing to accept office as a party, not a public, trust, and to use it in every way possible for the strengthening of party lines, has the first-rate man, who has only his merits to justify his ambitions, at a serious disadvantage. Where an organization (the term by which a machine prefers to be called) finds that it is likely to meet with rebuke through public resentment of its excesses, it will sometimes turn to a firstrate man. But this is only in cases of sheer desperation. There is nothing more amusing than the virtuous air with which a machine will nominate a first-rate man where there is no possible danger of party success. He it is whom the bosses are willing to sacrifice. The trick is turned ingeniously to the bosses’ advantage, for defeat in such instances proves to the truly loyal that only the ‘regulars’ can get anywhere.

A young friend of mine once persuaded me to join him in ‘bucking’ a primary for the election of delegates to a state convention. I cheerfully lent my assistance in this laudable enterprise, the more readily when he confided to me his intention of employing machine methods. A young man of intelligence and humor, he had, by means which I deplored but to which I contributed, lured from the organization one of its star performers. I speak of this without shame, that the cynical may not complain that I am of those star-gazers who look upon politics as being what an Ohio statesman once called resumption — ‘a damned barren ideality.’ Our ally knew the game; he knew how to collect and deliver voters by most approved machine methods. We watched him work with the keenest satisfaction. He brought citizens in great numbers to vote our ‘slate’; many of them men who had never been in the ward before. We gloated with satisfaction as the day declined and our votes continued to pile up. Our moral natures were in the balance; if we beat the machine with machine methods we meant never, never to be good again! It seemed indeed that our investment in the skilled worker could not fail of success. When the votes were counted, oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen! ‘Our man’ had merely used our automobiles, and I refrain from saying what other munitions of war, to get out the vote of the opposition! We had in other words, accomplished our own defeat!


The past year has been marked by the agitation for military preparedness; civil preparedness strikes me as of much greater importance. If I am right — or only half right — in my assertion that we are governed very largely by second-rate men and that public business is confided chiefly to the unfit, then here is a matter that cannot be ignored by those who look forward hopefully to the future of American democracy. There are more dangers within than without, and our tame acceptance of incompetence in civil office would certainly bring calamity if suffered in a military establishment. The reluctance of first-rate men to accept or seek office is more disquieting than the slow enlistments in the army and navy. Competence in the one would do much to assure intelligent foresight and efficiency in the other.

It is a disturbing thought that we, the people, really care so little and that we are so willing to suffer government by the second-rate, only murmuring despairingly when the unhappy results of our apathy bring us sharply face to face with failure.

‘The fatalism of the multitude,’ commented upon strikingly by Lord Bryce, has established in us the superstition that a kindly providence presides over our destinies and that ‘everything will come out right in the end.’ But Government by Good Luck is not a safe reliance for a nation of a hundred millions. Nothing in history supports a blind faith in numbers or in the wisdom of majorities. America’s hope lies in the multiplication of the fit, — the saving remnant of Isaiah’s prophesies and Plato’s philosophy, — a doctrine applied to America by Matthew Arnold, who remains one of the shrewdest and most penetrating of all our critics. Mr. Arnold distrusted numbers and had no confidence in majorities. He said, —

‘To be a voice outside the State, speaking to mankind or to the future, perhaps shaking the actual State to pieces in doing so, one man will suffice. But to reform the State in order to save it, to preserve it by changing it, a body of workers is needed as well as a leader; — a considerable body of workers, placed at many points, and operating in many directions.’

These days, amid ‘the thunder of the captains, and the shouting,’ there must be many thousands of Americans who are truly of the saving remnant, who view public matters soberly and hold as something very fine and precious our heritage of democracy. These we may suppose will witness the dawn of election day with a lively apprehension of their august responsibilities, and exercise their right of selection sanely and wisely. ‘They only who build upon ideas, build for eternity,’ wrote Emerson.

This nation was founded on ideas; and clearly in the ideas of the fit, the earnest, the serious, lies its hope for the future. To eliminate the second-rate, to encourage the first-rate man to undertake offices of responsibility and power — such must be the immediate concern and the urgent business of all who love America.

  1. Your pardon, ladies. — THE EDITORS.
  2. Thus reported in the press. — THE EDITORS.