Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Governor Black's Balance-Sheet

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Governor Black's Balance-Sheet

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2097 (February 27, 1897), p. 195.


Benjamin Franklin was so wise a man in his way that nobody need be ashamed to learn from him. When in doubt as to whether he should do or not do a certain thing, he would sometimes take a sheet of paper, divide it by a perpendicular line into two columns, and then put down in writing the reasons for doing the thing in one column, and the reasons against it in the other, so as to have both sets of reasons bodily before him for comparison. Then he would proceed to calculate with the greatest possible soberness of judgment the relative weight of the reasons for and against as he had them in black on white under his eyes — a good method, he thought, to evolve from a confusing uncertainty of counsel a sound and trustworthy conclusion.

It would perhaps be a useful occupation for Governor Black of this State to follow Franklin's example. He might put the reasons he had for reappointing Aldridge in spite of his flagrant violations of the civil service law, for making Lou Payn Commissioner of Insurance, and for indulging in contemptuous sneers at the merit system in the civil service, in clear language in one column, and in an opposite column a precise statement of the results which by those official acts he has accomplished. This would, indeed, be an operation retrospective in its nature. But if executed with entire candor it might set him to thinking as to whether, aside from all moral questions of right and duty, it will be profitable to continue in the same course.

As a reason for his disdainful fling at the civil service system, the Governor would probably state in the first column that, while competitive examinations may have a certain virtue, they should not be so conducted as to preclude the use of offices by way of reward and encouragement for party work. As a justification of the appointment of Aldridge and Payn, the Governor, examining his own conscience, would hardly venture to deceive himself with the assertion that these men were the best he could find for the faithful and efficient discharge of the public duties to which he assigned them. He would have to admit that he appointed them on account of the party machine-work they had done and were expected to do, as well as in obedience to directions given by the party boss, Mr. Thomas C. Platt; and, in the case of Lou Payn, because that man had a claim upon him for services rendered to himself personally, which he was by a duty of gratitude bound to reward, however offensive it might be to the moral sense of the community.

In the opposite column, the record of results, Governor Black, after a careful survey of the field, will have to note that by the attack upon the merit system in his message he has won the reputation of a Chief Executive of the State seeking to circumvent a plain mandate of the Constitution; and that he has encouraged among the party workers in general, and the members of the Legislature in particular, the inclination to nullify that mandate more recklessly than he himself may think safe. As to the appointments he has made, especially that of Lou Payn, he will have to acknowledge the fact that he had drawn on himself the severest censure from a very large part of the press, even of his own party, and from a host of persons whose opinions have great weight in the community. To make the importance of this fact clear to his mind he should carefully put down the names of the newspapers as well as of the men that have visited such indignant censure upon him, and compare them with the names of his defenders. He may then find that his lofty words about the "intolerant clamor" which will have no influence with a strong man like himself have a dismal sound in the presence of the insulted moral sense of the people. But the column of results will not be complete if he fail to record the further fact that this popular indignation is already expressing itself in a language especially intelligible to political parties as well as to aspiring public men — the language of votes. There has been a certain reaction after the Republican tidal wave of last autumn visible in several States. But nowhere has that reaction appeared in proportions nearly so formidable and alarming as in the municipal elections which about this time are taking place in the interior of the State of New York. The falling off in the Republican vote, compared, not with that of 1896, but that of 1895, is so uniform and so tremendous that the oldest and most renowned Republican strongholds seem no longer to be safe. A candid inquiry into the cause of this will convince the Governor that there are in this State untold thousands of Republicans most profoundly disgusted, and that they will not vote the ticket of a party one of whose honored and potential heroes is Lou Payn — not to speak of the tens of thousands of independents who last year were the allies of the Republican party, and are now indignant at seeing the victory to which they contributed turned to uses so base.

Here Governor Black might close the balance-sheet for the first two months of his administration. Surveying the profit and loss account with a clear eye he will discover that he is carrying on a frightfully losing business, for himself as well as for his party. As he himself can hardly fail to know, he has, by his appointments, succeeded in creating the widespread impression that he is one of the worst Governors this State has ever had; and if he were to be voted upon again to-day, he would surely be defeated by a larger majority than was cast for him last November. Of course he would drag his party with him into the disaster. In fact, New York has never had a Governor — not even excepting Hill — who in so short a time did as much to ruin his party as Governor Black has contrived to do in the first six weeks of his term. By the very things he may have thought apt to strengthen it, he has dealt the Republican organization of this State a staggering blow at home, and made it an object of contempt all over the country. The Governor will hardly dispute this if he reads Republican papers published outside of this State.

Governor Black cannot complain of being harshly judged. When he entered upon his office everybody was disposed to think and to speak well of him. Mere indiscretions or errors of judgment on his part would not have been intolerantly condemned. Even the offensive tone of a part of his message, although of evil augury, might have been forgotten, had it not been followed up by acts going beyond the darkest apprehensions. Governor Black may think that the storm of condemnation he has raised against himself will blow over, and that he will have a chance to regain public confidence. It would be unreasonable to say that such a chance can never come to him. But he should not delude himself with the belief that he will recover the respect of the people by helping the machine politicians to "beat" the civil service clause of the Constitution; nor will he ever reconcile the moral sense of the community to the appointment of such a person as Lou Payn by pleading that "we should stick to those friends who have stuck to us in fair weather and in foul, and should stick the closer to them when they are jumped upon the hardest" — a sentiment the promulgation of which he and Lou Payn are reported to have saluted with an approving nod at the Platt banquet. There can be nothing more immoral than the doctrine that a public man elevated to power should reward with office every villain that helped him to rise, and should do so all the more when the villanies of the "friend" are exposed and denounced. Governor Black must know that a man of self-respect and of a proper sense of public duty will pay his debts, political as well as other, out of his own and not out of the people's pocket; that he himself owes his real obligation to the people who elected him, and not to the Aldridges and Payns; and that he would never have been elected had the people known that, when in power, he would put Lou Payn into the high places of the State.

Neither can he hope to propitiate the people by merely pursuing his reputed plan of doing something to preserve the Adirondack woods, of completing the Capitol, and of recommending economy to the Legislature. Such things may be very nice, but they will evaporate like drops of water poured upon a hot stove. To regain for him what he has lost, a few good acts will be sadly insufficient. He will have wholly to renounce the companionship of the Aldridges and Payns, as well as their principles and practices, and to fight with more than ordinary bravery for the best kind of good government in the State. Unless he do that, the character of his record is already determined and will stand. The Franklin method of self-examination cannot be too highly recommended to him.

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.