Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The Citizens' Union

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
The Citizens' Union
From Harper's Weekly, March 13, 1897, p. 243.


THE CITIZENS' UNION.


The call for the formation of a Citizens' Union recently issued, to the end of procuring the nomination of suitable candidates for the municipal offices upon a non-partisan platform, has been heartily welcomed by all friends of good government in the city of New York who have the courage of their convictions. Nor can it fail to commend itself to the good sense of every citizen who has a sound conception of his own interests in the community as well as of the requirements of the common welfare. This is the fundamental plank of the platform put forth by the signers of the call: “We demand that the affairs of the city of New York be administered independently of national and State politics, and that local officers be chosen solely with reference to their qualifications. We will nominate no candidate unless his character and record are such as to justify public confidence in his assurance that, if elected, he will not use his office, or permit it to be used, for the benefit of any political organization, but will administer it in all respects in accordance with the principles of this declaration.” This is supplemented by the following: “Without calling upon any citizen to surrender in any degree his allegiance to his party, we insist upon an entire separation of municipal government from national and State politics, and we appeal to all good citizens, of whatever party, to unite with us in an organized effort to accomplish the object of this union.”

It is hardly necessary to discuss the necessity of such a movement before intelligent and well-informed citizens. Nothing has been more clearly proved by repeated and almost uniform experience than that partisan rule has been the most prolific source of corruption and inefficiency in the governments of the great municipalities in this country, and that in this respect there is very little difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. If it may be said that in the city of New York the abuses complained of fall mainly to the charge of the Democratic party, or rather of the ruling organization in the Democratic party, it may be said with equal truth that wherever in a large city the Republicans wield a heavy majority, as the Democrats do in New York, Republican rule is almost without exception as profligate, arbitrary, and inefficient as Democratic rule has been here. It is needless to point out examples. The two parties, therefore, as to their sins of omission and commission in municipal government, stand substantially on the same level. This is here all the more the case since the development of the Platt machine, as it grew more powerful, has been distinctly in the line of Tammany principles and practices. Of equal significance is the unquestionable fact that in our present city administration, which was to illustrate non-partisan municipal government, that part of the municipal service in which the non-partisan principle was most strictly adhered to has been conspicuously by far the most successful, while the failures that have occurred in others can be measured almost exactly by the degree in which the non-partisan principle has been disregarded. There could be no object-lesson more striking and conclusive.

But the movement, of which the call for the organization of the Citizens' Union forms the initial part, is confronted, among the very class of citizens who naturally sympathize with its aims, by that kind of timidity which is born of long subjection, and by that inane pessimism which discourages every effort for improvement with the cynical plea that all such endeavors are doomed to failure anyhow, and that it is useless to try. This pessimism, which is only a supercilious form of mental sloth or moral cowardice, has done more to frustrate reformatory efforts in public affairs than direct opposition. Many such efforts which failed would have succeeded had the crowd of pessimistic wiseacres, instead of turning up their noses at them as hopeless, aided them with the vigor and constancy of true men and dutiful citizens. So we hear now that the party machines are too strong to be dislodged; that they command a well-organized and perfectly drilled force, while their opponents have no organization, or at best a very loose one; and that if both the party machines make regular nominations, the non-partisans, acting independently, will have no chance of success on their side. Therefore why go to the useless trouble of fighting? Why not surrender at once?

Talk like this is peculiarly pusillanimous and reprehensible at this moment. Formerly we were told that while national and State elections were held at the same time with those for municipal offices, party spirit ran away with many citizens who otherwise would have been inclined to give their efforts to good municipal government for its own sake, and that thereby the chances of non-partisan movements were grievously impaired. At last the separation of municipal from national and State elections has been effected, for the very purpose of giving non-partisan action at municipal elections a free field. And now, when we have that free field, the good citizens of New York should abstain from taking advantage of it, because the party machines do not, what they were never expected to do — voluntarily lay down their arms, but threaten to continue the fight for their accustomed plunder? Thus to abstain under such circumstances would be self-stultification with a decided flavor of imbecility.

The duty of the public-spirited citizens of New York who are sincere and earnest in their desire for good municipal government seems to be a very plain one. The call for the formation of a Citizens' Union, signed by a large number of respectable persons, many of whom enjoy the confidence of the whole community for uprightness and good faith, furnishes a suitable rallying-point for a strong organization. The work of organizing should be pushed forward without delay, and as soon as the organization is sufficiently representative of the various classes of our population it should proceed to action. What can it do? It can designate candidates for the municipal offices with sole regard to the duties to be performed. It can select for each place a person of whom every fair-minded citizen will have to admit that he is the man for the place, and that for the public interest no better choice could be made. It can put these candidates before the people — the earlier the better — appealing to all good citizens to support them for the general good of the community, and then leave the party machines to support or oppose them as they see fit.

It may be said that this would be a bold proceeding; and so it may appear at first sight. But what was the separation of the municipal from the national and State elections designed for, if not for just this kind of action? What will that separation be worth, if, after all, the public-spirited citizens are to wait for the party machines to put before them the old-accustomed choice between evils, and then tamely to accept that choice? Besides, the course of action here proposed is by no means as rash and adventurous as it may look to timid souls. Neither of the two party machines in the city of New York is in a very sanguine state of mind. Both are nervously anxious as to what the future may have in store for them, and there is but little doubt that a bold and determined advance of the non-partisan movement is the thing they fear most. Of this the wails uttered by the spokesmen of the machines when the call of the Citizens' Union came first before the public gave ample evidence. That the non-partisan movement, too, will have to meet its dangers is not denied. But the greatest of these dangers would be a lack of courage in its own conduct.

Carl Schurz.    


This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.