Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Mr. Henry George in the Municipal Campaign

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Mr. Henry George in the Municipal Campaign

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2131 (October 23, 1897), p. 1047.


The candidacy of Mr. Henry George for the Mayoralty was originally started by Democratic organizations outside of Tammany Hall, which are largely composed of chronic spoils-hunters. They found in the failure of Tammany Hall to endorse the free-coinage plank of the Chicago platform a welcome opportunity to set up for themselves a claim to be recognized as the “regular” Democratic organization in New York. They selected Mr. Henry George as their candidate for Mayor because they expected him to draw a large vote among the laboring population, and thus to give themselves a fair chance to ride on his back into lucrative places. But Mr. Henry George, whatever else may be said of him, is not a spoils politician. He is a speculative social reformer who has his own panacea for the ills of the social body, in the curative efficiency of which he sincerely believes, no matter whether anybody else does. Nor is there any reason for doubting the sincerity of his sympathies with the poor and suffering. Last year he attached himself to the Bryan movement, not as if he had recognized the free coinage of silver as the cure-all which Mr. Bryan represented it to be — it being, on the contrary, quite probable that he looks down on Bryan as a social reformer with great contempt — but because he saw in the Bryan movement a powerful demonstration of discontent with the existing order of society, and because he thought that this discontent, if represented by a great political party, might be made to serve the realization of his own peculiar theories.

It is as the representative of those more or less vague discontents which last year helped to swell the Bryan vote that Mr. Henry George stands in the present municipal campaign. Nothing could, indeed, be more grotesque than that the elements gathering around him should call themselves the “Jeffersonian Democracy,” for nobody acquainted with Thomas Jefferson's writings, especially with his views on financial subjects, will doubt that if Jefferson could rise from the grave to-day he would throw up his hands in horror and amazement at most of Mr. George's theories. No less grotesque is it that Mr. George should be aspiring under present circumstances to the office of Mayor of Greater New York — a position the principal duties of which, especially at the beginning of a new municipal organization on a gigantic scale, require not only personal honesty, which Mr. George undoubtedly possesses, but practical sense, executive ability, and administrative experience of a very high order, which Mr. George's own friends would certainly be very far from attributing to him. We are, however, not quite unaccustomed in this country to the unauthorized, not to say fraudulent, use by political parties or agitators of names or devices which carry a certain prestige with them, nor to the nomination for important offices of men who are ill qualified for the discharge of the duties thereof. Such things, therefore, would little disturb the equanimity of the conservative citizen. But what did disturb that equanimity when Mr. George appeared on the scene as a candidate was the apprehension that his elevation to the first executive office in Greater New York would not only lead to various sorts of reckless experiments by him, but also encourage the lawless and unruly elements of the population, frequently called the dangerous classes, to violent and uncontrollable transgressions, and that thus public order and security might be seriously imperiled.

It will hardly be denied that if Mr. George should be elected such things might happen, although it is also certain that in such an emergency, aside from the natural sense of responsibility of any municipal officer as to the maintenance of peace and order, the conservative forces of society would promptly assert themselves in their full strength and with unfailing effect. The danger might look formidable at the moment, but it would hardly last long. However, the mere temporary existence of such a danger would be hurtful enough to the character as well as to the prosperity of the city. But while such contingencies are rather remote — Mr. George's chances of success in the election being extremely slight — it behooves every good citizen to consider not only how the existing discontents may be rendered harmless, but also how far they are justified, and how they can be allayed by remedial action. We can, indeed, not expect to satisfy those who are constitutionally discontented because of the general fact that some people are rich while others are poor. But whenever the spirit of discontent descends from vague generalities to tangible particulars, and points out specific abuses to be corrected and wrongs to be remedied, it is the part of prudence as well as of justice to listen with attention and respect. Thus we find in the Henry George platform, by the side of an array of general propositions somewhat rhetorically dressed up, a number of complaints and corresponding demands concerning our municipal concerns which are by no means entertained by the followers of Mr. George alone. These complaints turn mainly upon the point that taxation is unfair, and that public franchises have been given to individuals or corporations without adequate compensation to the city; that those individuals or corporations are enjoying all sorts of favors at the hands of those in power, and that they are thus permitted to enrich themselves virtually at the expense of the people.

That there is much truth in this is very widely believed. Nor can it be denied that such a state of things is calculated to strengthen the impression that the rich are enjoying, in many cases at least, various unjust advantages over the poor. It is equally undeniable that such an impression, especially when based upon facts generally known, or at least upon appearances exciting plausible suspicions of wrong, is most apt to create discontent or to intensify the discontents already existing. Now who is responsible for the mischief that has thus been done? It is generally understood that the party machines have been, and are, drawing their funds mainly from individuals or corporations that depend, as to their gains, on the action of public authorities — the State Legislature, or city councils, or municipal officers — and that seek to be benefited in their interests, or protected against unfavorable action, by political influence. When Tammany Hall was in power in this city and controlled the State Legislature, the Tammany boss had to be “seen” by every person or corporation desiring legislative or municipal favors or protection against injurious action, whether just or unjust, and such favors or such protection were obtained if well paid for. The relations between corporations and the Republican boss while the Republican machine controlled the Legislature, and through it our municipal affairs, have been so often laid bare by the newspapers that it is needless here to repeat the familiar tale. In short, the party machines and bosses identified, for pay, their interests with the interests of individuals and corporations that largely depended for their profits upon the favor of public authorities.

But this was not the worst of it. Those individuals and corporations paying money to the party machines or bosses for favors or protection naturally desire that the machines or bosses should keep the power necessary to enable them to secure to their tributaries the favors or the protection desired. They therefore have a strong inducement to use, and do use, their influence in elections, which, in the aggregate, is very potential, to strengthen and perpetuate machine or boss rule. This explains the well-known fact that some prominent Republicans connected with such corporations, while very eloquent about the virtues of their party, thoughtfully avoid attacking Tammany, and that Democrats in a similar situation are very careful not to offend Boss Platt. In other words, the beneficiaries of machine or boss rule are thus, to the end of serving their own convenience, exerting their great power to maintain a sort of government which is thoroughly undemocratic, and highly prejudicial to public morality and the common welfare. This is very bad citizenship, which, if persisted in, may in the course of time provoke commotions far more dangerous that the present Henry George movement is.

On the other hand, those of the present followers of Mr. George who have cool heads, and aim rather at the reform of specific abuses than at a general disturbance, should consider that at the present moment there is a promising opportunity for breaking up the nefarious system here described. They can help in securing this desirable result, not be voting for Mr. George, whose election, if it could be brought about at all, would be apt to provoke a sharp reaction, which in its turn would play into the hands of the machines and their beneficiaries — but by voting for the candidate who is the declared and honest antagonist of all boss rule, and of the whole system of favoritism which has grown up under it, and whose election will restore what this community has not had for many years: government solely for the public interest. That candidate, who really can be elected, is Mr. Seth Low.

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 - 1897-10-23 - Mr. Henry George in the Municipal Campaign.PNG