Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

government of 1870, thinking people began to turn their serious attention to this question.

It was forgotten that the city of modern times is only an economic and social community, and not also a political one, as the city of the Middle Ages was. As there was no general system of city government, but each city had its own charter, and special laws could be passed any moment on any matter, the cities — especially the large ones — found frequent opportunity to get greater powers at the expense of the state. At the same time the doctrine that the franchise is a natural right of every man became more and more the basis of municipal institutions. The mayor, the aldermen and the council (or common council) were elected directly by the people, and the vote of the lowest scamp counted just as much as that of the greatest merchant prince. Whoever knew how to cajole the masses, who contribute little or nothing to the public burdens, could take the purse of the city into his hands,- a booty great enough to allure both political parties. Instead of the common good, party interests were more and more made paramount in the city elections. The frequent recurrence of the elections, often each year, made it still easier to thrust deep into civic life the dragon-seed of partisanship, while the necessary continuity disappeared more and more from the adminis

1 “There has been no greater legislative abuse, no more prolific source of fraud, pillage and litigation, than the accumulation of special city and village laws. In New York, for example, in each of the four years succeeding 1867, the number and bulk of such laws enacted have, I think, exceeded all similar legislation in England, since the enactment of the general municipal corporations act in 1835. In 1870 the legislature of New York passed thirty-nine special laws for the city of Brooklyn alone!" Eaton, p. 12.

“We have too much surrendered the sovereignty of the states to the claims of cities and villages.” Ibid., p. 9.

tration of city affairs, and the business experience of the officials became steadily less. City offices, like those of the state and Union, were regarded as spoils of the victorious party, with which the faithful partisan was to be paid and a new horde of “working” and “practical" politicians was to be allured. The method of appointment was often such that no one could well be made responsible for a bad official, and the consequence of this and of the spoils system in general was that year after year a more doubtful class of persons filled the city offices. The principal official task was not the fulfillment of official duties, but the doing of political work; for whoever forfeited the favor of the local party-leaders also lost his office, and that favor depended upon how much a man was worth to the party. The washed or unwashed ward-politician, whose headquarters were usually a tap-room, drove the man of judgment and common sense entirely out of the field, and the city administration steadily developed into a real rat-pit of demagogues of all sorts and of every grade, from the man who used city politics only as a ladder by which to mount to state or national power, down to the insatiable thief whose first stolen million only inflamed his desire for the second. The better elements either really could not stem the increasing laxity, or they did not know how to take hold of matters, or they did not make a single serious effort to bring about a thorough-going reform. It is undoubtedly due in no small degree to the extreme optimism of the American people that this evil could gain such proportions. To this was added a stubborn unwillingness to give up the deep-rooted and beloved doctrine that the rights of man must be the foundation of municipal institutions as well as of national. As long as evils can become much worse than they are, Americans are not easily persuaded to consider them, and to undertake with energy and earnestness reforms which involve substantial changes. But the principal cause was unquestionably that the evil had so affected all sides of municipal life, and had reached such a point, that it had an immense power of resistance. From whatever side the attack was attempted, almost invincible obstacles presented themselves. When election day came the citizen, as a rule, had only a choice between two evils. While he had been attending to his business the thoughts and acts of the politicians had been directed during the whole year upon this decisive day. The world was shared before the citizen arrived on the ground: i. e., the official list of party candidates was prepared, and it remained for him only to vote for one or the other, or else to throw away his ballot. Who had the time, the desire and the commanding position needed to assemble individuals, to organize them and to persuade them to act together, not only independently of the existing party organizations, but in direct opposition to them and the thousands and tens of thousands of mercenary voters upon whom they reckoned ? The social, intellectual and moral coherence of the people was becoming less and less, because of the rapid growth of the cities under the influence of modern means of intercourse and production. The destruction of the vitalizing communal spirit, as it had existed in the conservative times of the early republic, a nation of small tradesmen and farmers, was greatly promoted by the immense influx of Europeans of different nations. Power was delivered up to the mass, and the mass was a fluctuating chaos, made up of men from all parts of America and Europe. A no small fraction of it either took not the slightest exception to the devastating rule of the demagogues, or expected to make money out of it. And if the pressure became so great that the sensible and intelgent people once assembled and won a victory at the polls, the politicians soon regained their lost ground; for they kept united and kept hold of the levers of the political machine. But the citizen went back to his business, and the method of civic administration remained unchanged. In other words, the first causes to which the evil was due were allowed to quietly continue. Public opinion, even, was systematically falsitied because the leading politicians bought part of the press by the use of the official advertising. The party leaders on both sides circumvented their own parties by corrupt alliances with each other for the distribution of the offices. Finally, the crown was placed upon the whole monstrosity when an elected judge, belonging to the gang, covered up the bold knavery and the comprehensive crimes of its members.

I have intentionally sketched the situation in New York, because the evils in the communal life of great American cities come most clearly to light here. The other municipal pictures show the same general type; only the coloring and tone are not so bright, and in many cities of the third grade they darken into such a harmless grey, that in a few cases even clear eyes would no longer be able to recognize the general type.

New York seemed to be the fittest example to present, not only because here the typical lines are easiest recognized, but because in New York the bow was bent too far by the demagogues, and the catastrophe, which overthrew in 1870 the rule of the leaders of Tammany Hall, gave rise to a serious investigation of the question of city government. Already, indeed, more or less thorough reforms of every sort had been tried and brought about in many states and the initiative given in many cities, but it was only through the occurrences in New York that a general and thorough discussion of the question was caused. This has borne rich fruit, even if everything which might be desired and even everything which is absolutely necessary has not yet been done. The ends sought are to enforce personal responsibility; to make the mayor more independent; to unite the two lawmaking bodies into one; to guard the appointment of officials; to place the most important executive officers ander more stringent control; to withdraw certain departments -- especially the police and fire departments wholly from party control; to give the public new and better opportunities to watch the deeds and omissions of the city office-holders; to give wider scope to the principles of civil service reform; to compress within narrower limits the evil of special legislation for cities; and gradually, in place of special charters, to bring to pass general laws for municipalities divided by law into classes.

If the condition of the great cities of America was by far the darkest picture in the public affairs of the United States, and is so still, in part, yet, on the other hand, the development of the last fifteen years on this very subject has given manifold proofs of the great political capacity and the great moral seriousness of the American people. It is very evident that American public affairs can neither be rightly understood nor fairly judged, if they are studied by themselves, that is, without regard to their historical development. This cannot be urged with too much emphasis, although the doctrine may seem, on account of its generally recognized validity, only a trite truth. Politically and socially the United States are in all essential particulars a community so like the European civilized world, that Europeans almost always fall into the error

« ForrigeFortsett »