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QUALITY PAST AND PRESENT
"STUDENTS of our government all agree,” said Governor Emmet O'Neal, of Alabama, in 1914, "that there has been a steady decline in the average standard of ability, independence, and intelligence of the membership of our State Legislatures.” 1 In the same year Ogden L. Mills told the New York Academy of Political Science that "it is becoming increasingly hard to get our ablest men to become Senators and Assemblymen and that those positions are no longer looked upon with the same degree of honor as they were in the early days of the Republic.” E. L. Godkin, trenchant critic, had recognized the incipient stages of this decadence seventeen years before, finding it in scope far wider than the narrow limit of American State Legislatures. “There is not a country in the world, living under parliamentary government,” he declared, “which has not begun to complain of the decline in the quality of its legislators. More and more, it is said, the work of governments is falling into the hands of men to whom even small pay is important, and who are suspected of adding to their income by corruption. The withdrawal of the more intelligent class from legislative duties is more and more lamented, and the complaint is somewhat justified by the mass of crude, hasty, incoherent, and unnecessary laws which are poured on the world at every session. It is increasingly difficult to-day to get a man of serious knowledge of any subject to go to Congress, if he have other pursuits and other sources of income. To get him to go to the State Legislature, in any of the populous and busy States, is well-nigh impossible." ?
Let us travel back to that halcyon time when the best men went to the Legislature. It was not in 1875, for then Henry Reed doubtless spoke precise truth when he said: "It is true that most State Legislatures are composed of men of low tone, ignorant, selfish, and easily debauched; it is also true that
1"Distrust of State Legislatures," No. Am. Review, May, 1914. : "The Decline of Legislatures," Atlantic Monthly, July, 1897.
transportation corporations are often recklessly managed, and are apt to be in the hands of unscrupulous men, and the relation between them and the State government is sooner or later one of bargain and sale.” 1
Congress was no better, for Gideon Welles wrote, in his diary December 12, 1866: “It is pitiable to see how little sense of right, real independence, and what limited comprehension are possessed by our legislators. They are the tame victims and participators of villainous conspirators.” And on the 24th: “There is less statesmanship, less principle, less honest legislation than usual. There is fanaticism, demagogism, reckless
The radicals, who constitute more than three fourths, are managed and controlled by leaders who have no more regard for the Constitution than for an old almanac, and the remaining fourth are mostly party men, not patriots. ... Four fifths of the members are small party men, creatures of corner groceries, without any knowledge of the science of government or of our Constitutions. With them all, the great, overpowering purpose and aim are office and patronage."
It must have been that the Civil War brought depravity in its train, for even while it was in progress, in 1862, we find Sidney G. Fisher declaring: "The Government is below the mental and moral level, even of the masses. Go among them. Talk to the farmer in his field, the blacksmith at his anvil, the carpenter at his bench even the American laboring man who works for hire, in the Northern States — and compare their conversation, so full of good sense and sound feeling, with the ignorance, vulgarity, personality, and narrow partisan spirit of an ordinary Congressional debate, and with disclosures made by investigating committees. Evidently the mind and moral sentiment of the community are not represented." ?
The lawmaking bodies of the States were no better off, if we may trust the judgment of Anthony Trollope, who came to this country in 1861. Nothing, said he after his visit, had struck him so much in America as the fact that the State Legislatures were puny powers. He found that the two professions of lawmaking and of governing had become unfashionable, low in estimation, and of no repute in the States. “Whether or no the best citizens of a State will ever be induced to serve in the
1 "Some Late Efforts at Constitutional Reform," No. Am. Review, July, 1875. 2 The Trial of the Constitution, 347.
State Legislature by a nobler consideration than that of pay, or by a higher tone of political morals than that now existing, I cannot say." And later on: "The theory has been that public affairs should be in the hands of little men.'
That being the wretched case threescore years and more ago, what must be our plight to-day when we have fallen so much below our fathers ! But they, too, had fathers vastly their superior in virtue and intelligence. Read the glowing tribute paid to the merits of Congressmen in 1841 by another English observer, Charles Dickens, after visiting the Capitol at Washington:
“Did I recognize in this assembly, a body of men, who, applying themselves in a new world to correct some of the false hoods and vices of the old, purified the avenues to Public Life, paved the dirty ways to Place and Power, debated and made laws for the Common Good, and had no party but their Country?
“I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; underhanded tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon's teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.
"Did I see among them, the intelligence and refinement: The true, honest, patriotic heart of America ? Here and there, were drops of its blood and life, but they scarcely colored the stream of desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay. It is the game of these men, and of their profligate organs, to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicately-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked. And thus the lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation."'1
1 North America, 216, 509.
A panegyric not quite so emphatic, but yet earnest, was that of still another visitor, De Tocqueville, who wrote his "Democracy in America" half a dozen years earlier. "On entering the House of Representatives at Washington," he said, "one is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly. The eye frequently does not discover a man of celebrity within its walls. Its members are almost all obscure individuals, whose names present no associations to the mind: they are mostly village lawyers, men in trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society. In a country in which education is very general, it is said that the representatives of the people do not always know how to write correctly."
Yet another visitor of that period was Harriet Martineau, who passed two years here in thorough travel, meeting the leading statesmen of the time, and, on the whole, making just and accurate observations. From her we learn that in this retrospect we have not yet reached the time when the best men were elected, for she said: “It has become the established method of seeking office, not only to declare a coincidence of opinion with the supposed majority, on the great topics on which the candidate will have to speak and act while in office, but to deny, or conceal, or assert anything else which it is supposed will please the same majority. The consequence is, that the best men are not in office. The morally inferior who succeed, use their power for selfish purposes, to a sufficient extent to corrupt their constituents, in their turn. ... I often mentioned this to men in office, or seeking to be so; and they received it with a smile or laugh which wrung my heart. Of all heart-withering things, political scepticism in a republic is one of the most painful. I told Mr. Clay my observations in both kinds. “Let them laugh,' cried he, with an honorable warmth; ‘and do you go on requiring honesty; and you will find it.'”
Miss Martineau, De Tocqueville, Dickens, all observed our public life in the period when the influences of Jacksonian Democracy are supposed to have lowered its tone. For more satisfactory proofs of the decorum, dignity, chivalry, that marked our predecessors in so much greater degree than ourselves, let us go farther back, to the first decade of the century, and read a story, little known, that appeared in the “New York Evening Post” of December 13, 1805 :
1 American Notes, ed. of 1910, 143. 2 Society in America, 1, 85.
“Oppugnation - The United States Gazette hints at a street affray, between two gentlemen in Philadelphia, and the particulars have since been verbally communicated; but the personal respect we bear one of them, prevents our making it a newspaper story. Not so with that of which we shall now give our readers the particulars, something the true english style.
“On Friday last the well known Leib, one of the representatives of Pennsylvania, and the leader of the Duane party, and Joseph H. Nicholson, one of the representatives of Maryland, met in the Congress Lobby about 1 o'clock; when Leib immediately called Nicholson a liar, and thereupon commenced one of the best fought battles recorded in the annals of Congressional pugilism.
“THE FIGHT" (It will suffice to quote the description of three of the rounds, typical of the whole.)
“1st round. Nicholson hit Leib in the mouth and knocked him down.
“7. Nicholson knocked down his man without ceremony 20 to 2 on Nicholson.
“44. Nicholson gave his opponent another favourite hit on the throat, and Leib fell exhausted.
“The fight continued until the 64th round, but a detail of the rounds could be no gratification to our readers. Leib had received such blows as deterred him from again facing his man. He protracted the fight, falling after making a feeble hit. In the round which ended the fight, those who backed him advised him to resign, which he did, after a combat of one hour and seventeen minutes.
“The combatants were alike very much beaten; but although Nicholson could scarcely see out of either eye, he appeared quite fresh. Leib was everything that has been said of him. Against any other man but Nicholson, he must gain a conquest off hand. He fights without fear, and his blows are such as leave evident marks behind. He, however, uses his left hand but seldom, for if he could perform with it equal to his opponent, he might with safety bid him defiance. Vivat Respublica."
The particularity of this account lends it the color of truth,