Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Partisan Municipal Government

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Partisan Municipal Government

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2119 (July 31, 1897), p. 751.


Of the arguments in favor of partisan municipal government, that recently published by ex-Governor Roswell P. Flower appears to have attracted the most attention. He admits that the failure of partisan government in cities has “in some instances been conspicuous and humiliating.” But he affirms, on the other hand, that “some of the worst instances of maladministration have occurred under nominal non-partisanship.” He fails, however, to specify such instances. He only says: “I believe that the net result of the non-partisan movement which elected Mayor Strong has been of distinct advantage, in some respects, to the people of New York; but its merits have been confined to the services of a few men who have conducted their offices with conspicuous fidelity and intelligence. As a test or demonstration of what constitutes genuine non-partisanship, it has been a failure.” The mistakes committed by Mayor Strong consisted, not in appointing to office persons who were party men, but in selecting for appointment men on account of their belonging to this or that party organization, instead of choosing them solely according to their fitness for the official duties to be discharged. And if Mr. Flower will candidly analyze the successes and failures of Mayor Strong's administration, he will agree with the general judgment that in the different departments it succeeded in the same measure as the true principles of non-partisan government were faithfully observed, and it failed in the same measure as those principles were departed from. The most conspicuous success was achieved in the street-cleaning department, which was most conspicuously conducted in the non-partisan spirit. The failures it is needless to point out.

Mayor Strong's administration therefore shows, not that non-partisan municipal government is impracticable, but that, in the present case, it has splendidly succeeded where it was fairly and consistently tried, and that the failures occurred where it was not. Nor does the fact that Mayor Strong made some appointments for partisan reasons prove that when a ticket on a non-partisan platform has been supported by several partisan organizations, those elected must make partisan appointments. On the contrary, the experience of the last two years has demonstrated that Mayor Strong's administration would have been stronger in public opinion, more harmonious, more effective in promoting the public good, more acceptable to the people, and more apt to secure the triumph of the non-partisan principle in coming elections, if he had made no appointments on partisan grounds at all. By this time Mayor Strong probably thinks so himself.

It is one of the favorite arguments of the advocates of partisan municipal government that such a government will be restrained from evil practices by the feeling that it is “responsible” to a party organization. This is a catch phrase. What does such “responsibility” mean? It means, practically, in the first place, that the heads of such a partisan government will be held “responsible” for putting the offices at their disposal into the hands of their party organization. It means, in the second place, as to the responsibility of the party to the public, that when such partisan officers, in doing all they can for the benefit of their party organization, offend the moral sense of the public and get into difficulty, the party organization will do all it can to cover up their misdoings and to help them out. The party organization will usually stand by the evil-doer if he has been “true” to it in the matter of patronage and other plunder, sometimes to the last extremity, sometimes at least until his case is absolutely hopeless and the attempt to sustain him would mean immediate party disaster. Such has been for many years the history of such party organizations as those we have to deal with in New York. If any such organization has held one of its leaders in office “responsible,” with regard to his official conduct, it has been not for official misconduct ever so gross, but for permitting himself to be “found out.” No fair-minded man will believe that this sort of “responsibility” to or by party organization can, under existing circumstances, be conducive to good municipal government.

Will, on the other hand, as Mr. Flower thinks, non-partisan municipal government, not holding itself responsible to a party organization, be without the necessary sense of responsibility? Here is a practical example. Of all our present city officers Colonel Waring is probably the most “independent” in sentiment. Few citizens of New York know to what party he belongs, or whether he belongs to any. If anybody should speak to him about his “responsibility” to a political party he would chuckle. But what sane person will say that Colonel Waring, as an officer of the city government, is without a proper sense of responsibility? He simply feels himself responsible to the people of New York and to the judgment of his countrymen for cleaning the streets of the city to the best of his ability. And there are other city officers animated with the same spirit and devoting themselves with the same fidelity to their duties. Now let Mr. Flower compare these men, whom he considers in a sense “irresponsible,” with a majority of their predecessors under partisan municipal government with all the moral weight of their responsibility to party organization upon them — and where does he find the strongest sense of responsibility of the genuine kind? And which kind of responsibility serves the public best?

Nothing could possibly be more delightful than the string which Mr. Flower attaches to his plea in saying: “Behind any defence of municipal government by party, however, must stand the imperative condition that the party organization be intelligent, honest, and broad-minded. Corrupt and incapable local organizations cannot give good local government and are a menace to party success in either State or national contests. But with clean men directing party effort, and insisting upon honest, faithful public service as a condition for rewards, municipal government is safe in partisan hands, and evils which have grown up under control by party need not exist.” This is the hugest joke of the season, considering the character of the party organizations we have to deal with in New York city — Tammany Hall, under Boss Sheehan on the one side, and the Republican machine under Boss Platt on the other. Yes, if Tammany Hall and the Platt machine, or either of them, were or could be made party organizations unselfishly devoted to the public good, municipal government might be as safe in their hands as in those of any other set of virtuous patriots. But will not the mere suggestion of such a possibility provoke a general guffaw? Mr. Flower tells us that “partisanship in city government differs from non-partisanship in being a reflection of conditions as they exist — not as they ought to be.” Well, will not then partisanship in our city government reflect existing conditions which are very bad? And are not good citizens in duty bound to strive for a change of conditions in the direction of what they “ought to be”? And could there be anything more hopeless than an attempt to effect that change by a transformation of Tammany or of the Platt machine into devotees of good government?

Under such circumstances there is something of comedy in the spectacle of a company of sound-money Democrats meeting at dinner like the Pickwick Club to devise methods of attaining good municipal government by electing only “Democrats” to the city offices, and of “uniting” all “Democrats,” Tammany included, to that end. These gentlemen seem to be haunted by a vague apprehension that any independent municipal movement may somehow hurt their party, whatever that at present may be. The droll confusion of this idea is mercilessly betrayed by Mr. Flower when he says: “A battle for tariff reform or for honest money might be lost, if party activity were reserved only for Federal elections.” If this be true, might not likewise a battle for high protection or for free silver be lost, if party activity were reserved for Federal elections? And is not this even far more likely because independent action is most apt to weaken the regular organizations, which at present work, one for high protection and the other for free silver? Those gentlemen are no less at sea with regard to the municipal situation. Do they not know what everybody else knows, that if Tammany “unites” with them on a respectable Democrat for the Mayoralty and keeps Bryanism in the background for the time being, it does so only for the purpose of tiding over a dangerous crisis, and of claiming the victory and monopolizing its fruits if the “united” Democrats win? Do they not see that by such an unprincipled “union” of sound-money men and Bryanites as “Democrats,” they would simply make themselves a mere tender to Tammany Hall? If they really mean to serve the cause of good government in New York they cannot too soon join the independent citizens' movement and contribute their share toward keeping it in the truest sense non-partisan.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1897 July 31 - Partisan Municpal Government.PNG