Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

relations between legislation and a heartless, soulless moneyed power, an opinion still familiar.

At the other end of his long public life Mr. Tilden delivered himself of a judgment indicating that either things grew better after the period of his youth, or else that the passage of many years mellowed backward vision. It was in 1874 that he told the Young Men's Democratic Club of New York: “I can remember perfectly well when you might stand in the legislative halls of this State - it is not more than eight and twenty years ago — and no man would suspect any member of being under any influence, consideration, or motive that was not perfectly legitimate." Calculation will show that the immaculate period thus described was about 1846.

He who will may attempt to synchronize this with the timetable of another admirer of the good old days, equally famous in the politics of New York, that astute politician Thurlow Weed. It was in 1866 that recalling the Legislature from 1814 to 1839 he said: “During all this period legislative action was marked, with exceptions few and far between, by honesty and integrity. The principles and habits of the earlier and better days of the government had not yet been weakened by influences which subsequently obtained.” 1

Weed is alleged to have used his political control of the New York Legislature in 1860 to secure the granting of several franchises for street railways in New York City, to a gang of lobbyists, and to have spent the four to six hundred thousand dollars of "campaign contributions" obtained in this manner to back the candidacy of Seward for the presidential nomination at the Chicago convention of the Republican party. The fact that such an allegation could be made, indicates of itself the ground for attaching weight to Weed's conclusions in 1866 : "Legislation and legislators have within thirty years become sadly demoralized. There is not in these times that high sense of official responsibility and legislative integrity that pervaded earlier legislation. Formerly the suspicion of corruption in a member would have put him into Coventry,' while knowledge of such an offense would have secured the expulsion of the offender. Now 'bribery and corruption' prevail to a greater extent than existed in the worst days of the Parliament of England, where, happily for England, the practice has been reformed, as it must be here, or corruption will undermine the government. No measure, however meritorious, escapes the attention of 'strik

1 Autobiography of Thurlow Weed, 404. 2 R. C. Brooks, Corruption in American Politics and Life, 71.

Venal members openly solicit appointment on paying committees. In the better days of legislation, when no unlawful motive existed, it was considered indelicate to indicate to the Speaker any preference about committees.” 1

On comparing dates, it may be concluded that in New York State, as we have seen was the case at Washington, the decade of downfall was that just before the Civil War. The degree of deterioration by 1856 may be judged from the “Editor's Table” of “Harper's Magazine” for October of that year, where by indirection it was alleged that the balance of power in the Assembly had been held for two years by men who were ready to sell every vote; "that they did sell, last session, every vote for which they could find a purchaser; that more than one member committed offenses during the session for which they might have been sent to the State's prison, were accused of the same publicly, and dared not deny."

Things went from bad to worse. Jennings cites a letter to the “New York Tribune” dated at Albany March 18, 1867, in which it was asserted that not forty members could have been found for ten years past, willing to vote without a bribe. The New York Central Railroad Company had paid since 1853 half a million dollars in corrupting the members. In a letter in the "Tribune" of March 29, 1867, the same writer asserted a bill was passed through the Senate at a cost of $40,000. In the Assembly“ between forty and fifty votes were paid for, at prices varying from $300 to $1500 each.” And in a third letter published in the “Tribune," April 3, 1867, the writer said: “During all the many years that I have been accustomed to observe the character of legislators and the proceedings of the body, I have never seen anything to compare with the present assemblage of Representatives in point of shamelessness, rapacity, and recklessness of consequences. Their predecessors have often been noted for venality and greediness, but these people sell their votes openly, haggle about the price without pretense of concealment, and then boast of what they have been paid.” The “New York Times” of April 8, 1867, confirmed these statements : “We venture to say that, as a general rule, for the last ten years, one fifth of the members of each House have been in the habit of taking bribes for their votes

1 Autobiography of Thurlow Weed, 409.

the fact is open, notorious to everyone who has had any personal connection with Albany legislation." And again: “We speak what hundreds of men know from personal experience, that no bill whose passage will confer pecuniary advantage upon any man or any corporation can be passed in Albany except by bribery - except by paying members to pass it. No man can get his rights, or prevent serious damage to his private interests, or avert ruin from himself and his family, except by

bribery."

A memorial by the Citizens' Association of New York, September 13, 1867, and signed by Peter Cooper, is quoted as saying: “It is well known to every intelligent man conversant with public affairs, that corruption has become organized throughout our State, and has assumed such alarming proportions that capital, labor, and the industrial and commercial classes are oppressed to a degree unknown even in countries where the most absolute and tyrannical form of government prevails. The demoralizing influences of corruption are rapidly penetrating social life, and tampering with the Press, the Pulpit, and with the Judge upon the bench, poisoning justice at the fountain-head, sapping morals, religion, and education.”

All this, had it no further support, might be questioned on the score of bias, and rejected. Jennings was a prejudiced scold. Newspaper correspondents are sometimes irresponsible and often rash of statement. Citizens' Associations are credulous. In this instance, however, some measure of official corroboration is at hand. So insistent were the charges that investigation took place. The usual difficulty in getting at the facts was found, for bribery is one of the hardest things to prove, but we may be sure that the need for action was demonstrated, for the special committee of the Convention of 1867 that made inquiry and took testimony, reported that official corruption was “a crime of deep turpitude, growing prevalence, and dangerous tendency.”

It is probable that here as in Washington the low-water mark was reached in the period between the War and the Crisis of 1873. Then gain began. Theodore Roosevelt, reviewing in 1885 his personal experiences and observations during three terms in the Assembly, declared the standard of legislative morals certainly higher than it had been fifteen or twenty-five years before. That there was much viciousness and dishonesty, much moral cowardice, and a good deal of actual bribe-giving in Albany, no one with any practical experience of legislation could doubt; but at the same time he thought the good members always outnumbered the bad, and that there was never any doubt as to the result when a naked question of right and wrong could be placed before the Legislature clearly and in its true light.

Mr. Roosevelt and some of his colleagues interested in getting through certain measures they deemed for the public good, had occasion to "size up" their fellow legislators. “As a result," he said, "and after very careful study, conducted purely with the object of learning the truth, so that we might work more effectually, we came to the conclusion that about a third of the members were open to corrupt influences in some form or other; in certain sessions the proportion was greater, and in some less. ... We felt absolutely confident that there was hardly a case in which our judgment as to the honesty of any given member was not correct." 1

It is with great hesitation that one questions such a conclusion by Mr. Roosevelt, yet it is to be remembered that he was then a young man, but a few years out of college, without the wonderful knowledge of human nature which was to be his fortune in later years, and that his temperament inclined him to emphasis. If it was a fact that one third of the New York legislators of that day were open to corruption, the percentage was surely very much larger than has been the rule in American lawmaking bodies.

When he reprinted his article a dozen years later, in "American Ideals,” he added in a note: “At present, I should say that there was rather less personal corruption in the Legislature; but also less independence and a greater subservience to the machine, which is even less responsive to honest and enlightened public opinion.” He had in 1885 thought it likely that the standard of legislative morals would continue to improve slowly and by fits and starts, “keeping pace exactly with the gradual awakening of the popular mind to the necessity of having honest and intelligent men in the State Legislatures.” That is just what has taken place. The nobler impulses that

1 "Phases of State Legislation," Century Magazine, April, 1885.

Three years

came with the opening of the twentieth century, to stirring which Mr. Roosevelt himself as President so greatly contributed, showed themselves in New York as everywhere else. In 1907, when Hughes was Governor, “The Outlook" was able to say: "Not in many years has a Legislature of the State been so free from suspicion of corrupt influences; not in many years has a Legislature of the State passed such an array of good measures, or killed so many that were palpably vicious.” 1 later the Senate by 40 to 9 voted that charges against Jonathan P. Allds, Senator from Chenango, had been sustained. Allds was accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to stave off legislation adverse to certain bridge corporations. To avoid expulsion he resigned. “The Nation” said (March 31, 1910) that this was the first time the Legislature or one of its Houses had found a member guilty of a criminal act.

Nobody would risk saying that the Legislature of New York is yet stainlessly pure, but that it is vastly more virtuous than its predecessors of half a century ago, cannot be questioned.

Turning to Pennsylvania, we find much the same story as in New York — early instances of corruption, downfall about the middle of the century, attempt at reform after the period of venality following the Civil War, slow and irregular advance since then. Jeremiah S. Black, able and eminent, delivering in the Convention of 1873 a scathing denunciation of the Legislature, traced the corruption to corporate influences, beginning with the charter of the Bank of the United States in 1836, “pushed through the Legislature partly by direct bribery and partly by a base combination of private interests.” 2 The early lapses of integrity may have taught men with mercenary instincts how to proceed, but it seems probable that their rascalities did not become customary until the decade from 1850 to 1860. Support of this view may be found in the testimony of Thaddeus Stevens, who was a member of the Legislature much of the time from 1833 to 1841. In a letter in the “Washington Morning Chronicle" of January 7, 1867, he is declared by Jennings to have said: “It cannot be denied, and therefore need not be concealed, that for the last ten or fifteen years the Legislature of Pennsylvania has had a most unenviable reputation.” From this it is a fair inference that at any rate the situation was not notorious before 1850. Then it became so bad 1 The Outlook, July 6, 1907, p. 484.

2 Debates, 11, 487.

« AnteriorContinuar »