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The chastening given to the country by the hard times following the financial crisis of 1873 seems to have had for one of its effects a purification of conduct. In 1877 James A. Garfield
a declared it to be demonstrable, as a matter of history, that on the whole the standard of public and private morals was higher than ever before; that men in public and private stations were held to a more rigid accountability; and that the average moral tone of Congress was higher than at any previous period in our history. A decade later Bryce thought that though bribery existed in Congress, it was confined to a few members, say five per cent of the whole number. Speaking to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1917 Charles G. Washburn, who had served in Congress, said it would be absolutely impossible to reproduce in the House of Representatives at Washington such legislative scandals as existed there within three or four years of the close of the Civil War. He asserted that legislative integrity and commercial honesty were never at a higher point.
As to present conditions there could hardly be testimony resulting from better opportunity to observe and know than that which Frederick H. Gillett has had as Speaker of the House. Commenting on strictures by J. Ramsay MacDona:d, the British labor leader, who had been quoted as averring that there is more corruption in the House of Representatives than in the House of Commons, Mr. Gillett said, in November, 1923, that in his four years in the chair he did not remember an instance where he suspected or had reason to suspect any man in the House of being influenced by corrupt motives. This tallies exactly with my own experience through the same period. I have not observed a single vote nor listened to a single speech that I had the slightest reason to suspect was influenced by a venal consideration. I have not been approached, nor have I known of any member who has been approached, with a suggestion having any venal flavor.
The charge that may be brought against members of Congress is not of influence by bribes, but of influence by interest. In Congress far more than in the State Legislatures do men consider the possible effect of their votes upon their political fortunes. The explanation is simple. Many members are solely
1 "A Century of Congress," Atlantic Monthly, July, 1877. 2 American Commonwealth, chap. LXVII.
dependent on their salaries. For the time membership furnishes livelihood. Reëlection means at least temporary freedom from anxiety. If giving offense is avoided, long service may be won. Furthermore, service in Congress can gratify ambition for distinction and advancement to much larger degree than service in a Legislature. All this brings strong temptation to take the positions that will prove least dangerous when election time comes again. In the eyes of men who think Representatives should be nothing but transmitters, the result will not seem unfortunate, but surely it does not increase the public benefits that spring from independent thought and action.
Attention was forcefully called to the dangers of recent developments by a thoughtful journalist, George Perry Morris, observing Washington public life from outside the official circle.i He thought that no extra-constitutional phase of practical political reconstruction is going on now comparable in significance with the planting at the nation's political center of the administrative headquarters of the "interests," whether capitalistic or proletarian, agricultural or industrial, educational or philanthropic, commercial or scientific. Millions of dollars already have been invested in elegant quarters, and more are to follow. The scale of expenditure for officials and staff is generous — indeed it excites the wonder of foreigners. Funds are raised by assessment of multitudes of members, and the money is lavishly expended on the instruments of propaganda. Spokesmen come before committees or present themselves in the offices of Congressmen, not to bribe, not to persuade, but to command. Millions of votes are the means of coercion. So Mr. Morris saw the legislator of to-day tending more and more to become the object of a group competition fiercer than he is trained to resist.
The menace is real. Group organization is one of the perils of the times. Yet he who has faith in the common sense of the people will not be unduly alarmed. He will find that the zealots who misrepresent their organizations can rarely make good their threats. Courage, sincerity, integrity will still be respected. Under the new conditions the perils of politics may not after all prove to be seriously greater than they always have been where popular approval has been the instrument of Fate.
Am. Review of Reviews, July, 1920.
VENALITY IN THE LEGISLATURES The record of the State Legislatures is no less free from stain than that of Congress, but shameful though some of it has been, yet the proof seems overwhelming that great advance has been made and that the standards of public honor were never so high as they are to-day. Certainly there has been no single instance of corruption in our own time matching that which disgraced Georgia before she had been in the Union a decade. It was in January of 1795 that the Georgia Legislature sold to four land companies the greater part of what is now Alabama and Mississippi, a tract of the richest farm land in the country, found afterward to contain thirty-five million acres, for about one and a half cents an acre. The news of the sale produced great excitement and indignation throughout the State. Every member of the Legislature but one had been bribed. The method used was the allotment of a certain number of acres to the legislator at a stipulated price which he was excused from paying until the market had risen forty or fifty-fold, when he received the difference. Righteous men led a campaign that put into the next Legislature a majority pledged to wipe out the blot. They promptly revoked the sale as a violation of the State Constitution, directed the repayment of the purchase money, and ordered the obnoxious act to be publicly burned. Two days later the sentence was carried out with due solemnity. The two Houses attended in a body in front of the State House. The Committee handed the act to the President of the Senate, he to the Speaker of the House, he to the Clerk, he to the Doorkeeper, who threw it into the flames that had been lighted, tradition says, by "fire from Heaven” drawn down by a sunglass. All evidence of the passage of the act was expunged from the records.1
The Yazoo Frauds brought from the United States Supreme Court one of the opinions that have become landmarks in our constitutional history, that in the case of Fletcher v. Peck, to be found in the 4th of Wheaton. Here but one phase of it may be noticed — John Marshall's handling of the contention that there had been a breach of a covenant upon a deed because some of the members of the Legislature were induced to vote in favor
IC. H. Haskins, The Yazoo Land Companies, 26; Alexander Johnston, "Yazoo Frauds," Lalor's Cycl. of Pol. Science, III, 28.
of the law which constituted the contract, by being promised an interest in it, and that therefore the act was a mere nullity. “This solemn question," said Marshall, "cannot be brought thus collaterally and incidentally before the Court. It would be indecent in the extreme, upon a private contract between two individuals, to enter into an inquiry respecting the corruption of the sovereign power of a State. If the title be plainly deduced from a legislative act, which the Legislature might constitutionally pass, if the act be clothed with all the requisite forms of law, a court, sitting as a court of law, cannot sustain a suit brought by one individual against another, founded on the allegation that the act is a nullity in consequence of impure motives which influenced certain members of the Legislature which passed the law."
To rehearse all the known episodes of corruption in the Legislatures would be a tedious task and serve no good purpose. Let it suffice to give the salient features of the record in a few of the States where scandal has been most prevalent, to prove first that it is nothing new, and secondly, to see if there is warrant for believing that our times are more virtuous than those that went before.
New York is the most important State for us to examine with care, because it has produced the largest volume of criticism and has done more than any other to give Legislatures a bad
In its great city are published the periodicals and journals of the country that, taken as a group, do most to shape reputation and form opinion. Their contributors and editors are naturally as a rule more familiar with what goes on in Albany than in any other State capital. It has been a grievous misfortune for most of the Legislatures of the land that they have been assumed to be but replicas of the New York Assembly. If it should appear that even the New York Assembly is not to-day quite so black as it is painted and that it is better than it has been at many periods in its history, perhaps other legislative bodies may now get reflected credit just as they have in the past been so liberally bespattered with reflected damnation.
Bank charters gave birth to corruption in New York. When the Merchants Bank secured its charter in 1805, it was proved that several members had been tampered with, and in the Council of Revision Judge Spencer zealously protested against the bill, partly on the ground that its passage through one if not
both branches had been secured by bribery and corruption. He pointed out that in the Senate, where the vote stood 14 to 12, Ebenezer Purdy, who had been bribed, was one of the fourteen, and that if Purdy had voted in the negative the bill would have been rejected. The protest was in vain and the bill became law, but Judge Purdy, who had introduced it, was forced to resign his seat to avoid expulsion for bribery.
One outcome was the enactment of a law exposing both the giver and taker of a bribe to the penalty of a fine not exceeding $1000, or two years of imprisonment. This law brought to grief John Martin, a preacher, as the result of another charter scandal, that of the Bank of America, incorporated in 1812. Martin was convicted of attempt to bribe members and was sentenced to confinement in the State Prison. Several affidavits to be found in the Journals of the Assembly disclose shameless attempts to corrupt in connection with this charter. The odium resulting discouraged bribery for a time, but a dozen years later fresh proofs of human weakness appeared in the circumstances connected with the chartering of the Chemical Bank. An investigation took place. Hammond's language about it ought to satisfy the most censorious. Says he: “The evidence given before the committee affords a most disgusting picture of the depravity of the members of the Legislature, and indeed, I might say, of the degradation of human nature itself.” 1
Episodes like this furnished some of the material that helped Andrew Jackson to rivet his hold on the masses. The Democrats were quick to turn the scandals to account. The country rang with questions like those that Samuel J. Tilden asked of a county convention at Hudson, New York, in 1833. “Can we be insensible to the rapid and fearful strides which a heartless, soulless moneyed power is making in our country? Are not monopolies and corporations springing up like hydras in every part of the nation? Are they not obtaining an alarming ascendancy over our legislative bodies, and over the people themselves?” 2
These were the queries of a youth of nineteen, and not to be taken as intimating the views of a mature mind, but they reflected an opinion then rife, and indeed in its implication of the
1 Hist. of Political Parties in the State of New York, 11, 178. 2 John Bigelow, Life of Samuel J. Tilden, I, 39.