Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Bossism in New York

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Bossism in New York

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2134 (November 13, 1897), p. 1119.


The natural incompatibility of good government and that kind of party organization which culminates in boss rule could find no more striking illustration than the recent municipal election in Greater New York. There are at present not a few well-meaning persons who, while deploring the restoration of Tammany Hall to power, seek to console themselves with a vague hope that after all, the new Mayor, Mr. Van Wyck, may rise to a just appreciation of his vast responsibilities, and give the city much better government than we were wont to expect from Tammany Hall. Every good citizen, of course, joins in that pious wish. But it is useless to indulge in such delusions. No Tammany Mayor, unless he be a man of the loftiest kind of public spirit, of exceptional strength of will, and of the most self-sacrificing devotion to public duty, can resist the influences bearing upon him from the power that made him; and even if he be such an extraordinary person, he will find himself balked at every step. Nor does anybody suspect Mr. Van Wyck of such heroic qualities. There is not the slightest reason for doubting that he was put in his high office for the very purpose of serving the ends of the Tammany organization, and that he would never have been selected had not the nominating power thought him a fit and willing instrument. These ends will, therefore, determine the character of his administration.

The Tammany organization, as in the course of time it has developed itself, consists of two classes of persons — politicians who co-operate with one another in the pursuit of public place or power for their personal profit, and, secondly, a large number of people who are made to expect from the potent favor of such politicians some benefit or other, be it in the way of employment at the public expense, or of help in need, or of protection or assistance in their private pursuits, whether lawful or unlawful — not to mention the criminal class, which, among the members of the Tammany organization, finds sympathetic usage, if not active aid. To these two classes may be added a third: Democrats who, although themselves honest persons, cling to Tammany Hall, and vote its ticket because it happens to bear the regular Democratic label. It is evident that an organization so constituted must, whenever intrusted with public power, use that power for the benefit of its members and dependents, rather than for the benefit of the community; for, if it failed to do this, it would annul the very reason of its being and drop to pieces. It is equally natural that such an organization should fall under the direction of one chief, who is to distribute the spoil, to adjust conflicting claims, to decide questions of discipline, to issue proclamations, and so on — in short, to perform the functions of a general commanding an army engaged in active operations in the enemy's country, and who to that end needs a power wellnigh autocratic.

The “boss” is therefore, in an organization like Tammany hall, a product of indigenous growth. When one boss steps out, another will inevitably take his place. And that boss will be most efficient and most satisfactory to the organization who permits himself least to be hampered by considerations of principle or of public interest, and who secures to his followers or dependents the greatest personal benefit at the public cost. What the chances of good government are with such an organized appetite in power it is needless to discuss. On the whole, it may safely be assumed that Tammany Hall will do the worst it dares. And it is to be apprehended that after such a victory as that of last week, and with such enlarged opportunities, it will dare very much.

The Republican party, in the city of New York as well as elsewhere, was originally composed, in the main, of intelligent citizens, whose controlling motive in political action was the service of the public good according to their understanding. The long possession of power in the nations developed in it that more or less mercenary element which gets its living from politics, and, to make itself indispensable, largely monopolizes what may be called the menial part of the party service. In a great centre of population like New York city this mercenary element finds a good recruiting ground, and is easily organized. Being always on hand, it gets the control of party committees, and usually gains a preponderant influence in party clubs. It assiduously cultivates that kind of party spirit which troubles itself little or not at all about principles or public measures, but has a keen eye to the prosperity of the organization and the personal benefits to be drawn from it. So it was here. The “Republican organization,” although not wholly composed of politicians unscrupulously selfish, passed under the control of selfish workers, and for reasons similar to those which make the Tammany organization subservient to the Tammany boss, the persons “running” the Republican organization became the menials of a Republican boss. The development was gradual, but it reached its culmination under the present Republican ruler, Mr. Thomas C. Platt.

The Republican boss differs, as to his position and possibilities, from the Tammany boss in several important respects. But the two are in hearty accord as to the necessity of maintaining the essential principle of boss government: that the two organizations, Tammany and the Republican machine, are the only two legitimate contestants for public power, and that any attempt on the part of independent citizens to get hold of the city government with disregard of the two organizations must be suppressed by their combined action. The bosses may fight one another for the first place; but when an attack is made on bossism itself, they have a common cause which must be maintained at any cost. This principle was proclaimed without the slightest equivocation by one of Boss Platt's principal spokesmen at the beginning of the late municipal campaign, and during that campaign both machines, without disguise, concentrated their efforts upon defeating the independent candidate, Mr. Low. Nor does the size of the Tammany vote leave much doubt as to a considerable number of Republican machine votes having been cast directly for Tammany candidates. In this respect, therefore, the two bosses stood substantially upon the same platform and pursued the same object.

But in other respects the position of Boss Platt is very different from that of his Tammany brother. While Boss Croker has to care for nothing but the city spoil, Boss Platt is at the same time the head of the Republican organization in the State, and bears a heavy responsibility as to the effect of his doings upon the fortunes of the Republican party in its national capacity. Moreover, his constituency is far more critical than that of Tammany Hall. It is true, he succeeded in this instance in inflaming Republican party spirit sufficiently to check the tendency prevailing among Republicans in favor of supporting Mr. Low. But a large number of the very Republicans seduced by him will now be inclined to judge him by the results accomplished. And these results exhibit him as a woeful blunderer in practical politics. He directed the action of the Republican majority of the State Legislature in such a way as to disgust and alarm the people, with the effect of turning the unprecedented Republican majority of last year into a minority. Against the judgment of the Republicans from the country districts he crowded through the Legislature the charter of Greater New York, expecting to turn the tremendous patronage of the new city administration over to the Republican party, and then he delivered that patronage into the hands of Tammany. He beguiled the Republicans of New York city with the pretence that his candidate had a flattering chance of election, and now his candidate figures as a poor third on the list, while the Republican party, as such, is exhibited to the country as the ally of Tammany Hall. For all this he has nothing to show but the maintenance of the boss principle and a greatly weakened machine. The balance sheet is so terribly against him as to force upon his followers here, and no less upon the national administration and upon Republicans generally, the conclusion that Mr. Thomas C. Platt is an extremely dangerous man to have at the head of the Republican party in so important a State as New York.

The days of Boss Platt are, therefore, likely to be numbered. And when he ceases to exercise his mischievous power it may dawn upon the Republicans of New York that while Tammany, for its objects and with its peculiar constituency, may need a boss, the Republican party will be morally and numerically much stronger without one. This will be a great gain to the cause of good government in New York, for, after the experiences we have had, a union of forces against Tammany, without any concession to machine politics, will then be made far easier. Thus the result of the recent election, while hard to bear, is by no means discouraging. If the opponents of boss rule could poll nearly 150,000 votes with a hastily improvised organization, they will be able to muster in much stronger force after preparation begun in time, especially since the party spirit, which stood in their way, has received a lesson not easily forgotten. What the friends of good government need above all things now is courage and perseverance.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1897-11-13 - Bossism in New York.PNG