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Had either of these suggestions been adopted, the antagonism I have mentioned might have been kept under. A perpetual President, and in a less degree, one for a long term, would have had a direct interest in preventing the opposing sections from coming into direct collision with one another. A President for four years—for that was the term which, in spite of the counsels of Hamilton, in spite of the recommendation of its own committee, the Convention fixed upon—has no such interest. The frequency of presidential elections has the effect of keeping the community in a constant state of turmoil and agitation. As a result of this, agitation becomes a trade, and the President comes in hampered with pledges and promises, which he has to swallow by the hundred in order to obtain the votes of his party. His short term of office does not give him time to work these off, and have leisure for governing for a few years, so as to promote the general welfare, even if he does not do his best to make things worse by intriguing with either faction, with the object of securing his own re-election.
It becomes a matter of importance to inquire to whom the pledges and promises which are forced upon the expectant President are given. The answer to this question reveals what is perhaps the most powerful of all the causes which have caused the fall of the Great Republic. I need not describe how American elections are got up. If they were directly the work of the people it would be bad enough. The great interests of the South and the North were so strongly opposed to one another, and their distinctly marked geographical separation afforded so little chance of rubbing down asperities by constant contact, that there could be but slight hopes of anything like a permanent compromise between their representatives being attained or allowed; and universal suffrage, whatever be its other merits, does not tend to the election of the best men, but rather to that of the most fluent echoers of the cry of the hour. But, bad as this system may be held to be, the one which actually prevailed was worse. The real electors were not the people, but a class of professional agitators. It is difficult at first to believe in the enormous power of which this class grew into the possession; and nothing short of the most striking evidence would make it at all credible. Unfortunately, however, such evidence exists. These men are not statesmen, and have never pretended to be; they simply look on politics as a means of making money. This is the way they go to work.
Some little time before the presidential election comes on, the agitators of each party meet in conclave for the purpose of selecting their man. In the selection, ability and services to the State are not looked upon as any recommendation, but rather operate as a ground for exclusion. They do not want a man with any very strong opinions or a will of his own, but a pliable man, who will act as he is bid by his party, and those by whom the party is managed; and the quality most in demand is insignificance. This great principle being kept in view, the election is made. In case the “caucuses” of the different States do not agree in the person they pitch upon severally, their representatives meet in a general party convention at some central place, and out of the different nominees of the local ones pick out that man who among them will answer their purposes best; and after having given the required number of promises to the satisfaction of the members of it, the happy man goes forth to the people as the candidate of his party.
The framers of the Constitution, in their desire, while adhering to the principle of popular election, to avoid the dangers of universal suffrage, devised the expedient of intrusting the choice of President to a select body of electors, whom the people were to nominate, but in whose hands, after they had been nominated, the matter was to be entirely left. But this difficulty did not long stand in the way of the managers. They did not only choose the President, but they chose the electors also; and it came not to matter much who the electors were, as they were simply delegates, pledged not to exercise any judgment at all, but simply to vote as they were bid; and this has been the system up to the present day. Under it, as may readily be seen, no individuality, no political diversity of opinion outside the great party lines, no minute shades of difference can, generally speaking, be allowed to appear; and thus it has come to be said, and not without truth, that there is no country in the world whose inhabitants are so utterly deprived of independence in politics as are the citizens of the American Union.
The effect of the way in which the election of President is managed is enough to canker the whole public life of the country. As I said, the electors of the chief magistrate have no power of choice, but are simply the delegates of two cliques of corrupt and unprincipled traders in politics, to whom one side is pledged to vote en masse for A, and the other pledged to vote en masse for B. A and B are probably two obscure men, with few antecedents, lest those antecedents should gain them enemies and cause a split in their party, and little strength of character, lest they should object to make all the promises required of them. It is perfectly well known beforehand which will be the President, as the majority in each State returns all the electors to which that State is
entitled. As soon as the election is over, every single office-holder of the Union, from the highest to the lowest, is turned out in order to satisfy promises ; and of course, as the clamourers for official spoils multiply, offices have to be multiplied too.
I am more concerned at present with the election of members of Congress than with that of the President. The same evils tell in their case, at least in the case of the House of Representatives, though in a less degree. But even if these elections were so managed as to afford no room for direct corruption and jobbery, yet it is impossible that they should not be affected by the results of the temper and spirit which the quadrennial presidential battle produces on the popular mind.
The evils which I have mentioned prevailed chiefly in the Northern States. That the South has been entirely free from them is not to be supposed; but though her States are very democratic in habit and feeling, yet there is not in them the same jealousy of all superiority, intellectual or other, as is to be found on the other side of the Potomac and Ohio. I think this has been shown of late, not only by the way in which they have unreservedly intrusted their executive and legislature, their army and navy, to the best men they could find, but also by the very judicious alterations which they made in the Constitution