Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The Municipal Situation

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The preparatory movements for the municipal campaign are shaping themselves substantially as foreshadowed in these columns ten weeks ago. The different forces that are to fight the battle of next November for the control of the Greater New York, the Citizens' Union, Tammany Hall, and the Republican machine, are busily engaged in manœuvering for position. Until recently the two organizations of spoilsmen, under the leadership of Boss Sheehan and of Boss Platt respectively, affected to look down upon the Citizens' Union as a loose gathering of childish enthusiasts who should not be taken seriously. The hatred displayed in their utterances was genuine; for nobody appears more detestable to spoilsmen than he who undertakes to stand between them and their prey. But their apparent contempt for the Citizens' Union was not sincere, for they instinctively felt that there was behind that movement a public sentiment which might assume dangerous proportions. At first Tammany Hall paid more deference to that public sentiment than Boss Platt; for Tammany at least, by attacking the conduct of the present municipal administration, attempted something like argument — ridiculous though it was considering that it was Tammany inviting comparisons — while Boss Platt in his great manifesto confined himself to expressions of haughty scorn for the “best citizens” who insolently presumed to dispute his sovereign prerogatives.

But of late the attitude of the bosses has become less lofty. No doubt Mr. Lauterbach truly portrayed the true inwardness of the spoilshunter's heart when he said that, although a Republican, he would rather see the control of the great city go into the hands of Tammany Hall than into those of men who recognized no responsibility to any party organization. This utterance was more sincere than discreet; it perfectly accorded with Boss Platt's principles, but it was too honest to suit his tactics. Telling the truth is a luxury which a machine leader may but frugally indulge in. Rather to aid Tammany than to permit men who have nothing but good government in view to rule the city, is a thing that may be done by a follower of Boss Platt, but it must not be said. Likewise was Mr. Lauterbach's proclamation that the regular Republicans of the city would think of nothing but a “straight ticket of true and tried party men” for the municipal offices considered by Boss Platt a little too emphatic and sweeping, and, without going far astray, we may attribute Mr. Lauterbach's recent retirement from the local leadership to the impetuosity of his eloquence rather than to the state of his health. At any rate, Boss Platt has concluded that the “best citizens” of the Citizens' Union are, after all, not beneath his notice, and that if they will accept from his hands a Mayor of Greater New York satisfactory to him, he may be willing to consider what they may petition him for as to some of the other offices. In other words, the Republican machine under Mr. Platt's orders has manœuvered itself into a position in which it is open to a dicker. And in order to make any municipal dicker palatable to patriotic citizens, the boss boldly and solemnly advances the gold standard as the banner around which to rally for the municipal campaign all opponents of the wicked free coinage of silver. When the triumph of the gold standard is fully assured in Greater New York, Boss Platt will kindly take care of the rest.

Tammany Hall, on the other hand, is not inclined to fight the battle on the gold-or-silver issue. It would rather have the people forget that last year it marched behind the drum of Bryan. It would therefore rally its hosts under the banner of “Democracy,” whatever that may mean; and to that end it casts out its net for the sound-money Democrats, whom it hopes to organize as an auxiliary force. Thus it seeks to oppose to the Citizens' Union a “Democratic Union.” The meeting at which this “Democratic Union” was to be launched will stand in the history of this campaign as one of its humorous curiosities. The Citizens' Union, among the foremost leaders of which are such Democrats as Abram S. Hewitt, Joseph Larocque, and James C. Carter, was denounced as a “Republican” contrivance. The Democratic Union is to have the object of saving the city, not from rascals, but from Republicans. Non-partisanship in municipal affairs is condemned as between Democrats and Republicans, but it is warmly advocated as between gold Democrats and silver Democrats.

The unique speech of Mr. Ellery Anderson fitly portrayed the logical consistency as well as the moral principle of the movement. “as a gold man,” he said, “I am ready to say to all silver men, 'You may be right, and you have enough Democracy for me to shake hands with you as Democrats.' The silver issue will not come up again for three years. By that time Mr. Bryan himself may be a gold-bug, and all of you free-coinage silver men. That matter is not involved in the issues of to-day. Let us now get together and elect a good Democrat as Mayor of the Greater New York.” Well, if Mr. Ellery Anderson, being now a gold man, does not know whether he will not be a silver man three years hence, does he know whether, calling himself now a Democrat, he will not three years hence be a Republican? There is just as much chance for the one as for the other; and he may therefore, not being sure of his own principles for the short space of three years, “shake hands” with anybody. Such a position may be satisfactory to Mr. Anderson and to his friends of the “Democratic Union”; but reasoning of this kind will hardly persuade any conscientious and clear-headed sound-money Democrat to become a mere tender to Tammany Hall. Such a Democrat will doubtless conclude that if, after a campaign like that of last year, the money question is to drop out of the municipal contest, a mere question of party label will certainly have no place in it, and that it will be his duty to join the side where he may find simply the most and best friends of good government, which will surely not be the side of Tammany Hall.

While the two spoils organizations are thus laboring to hold their own forces and to win outside adherents by striking conciliatory attitudes, the Citizens' Union has arrived at a critical period in its career. So far it has merely put forth its programme of non-partisan municipal government, with a few more commendable pledges, and upon the strength of this it has asked good citizens to enroll themselves under its auspices. This enrollment has proceeded tolerably well; but every day the number of good citizens is increasing who, before putting their names upon the roll, ask the question — not only “what are your principles?” but “who are your men?” There is good reason for this. The present city administration, although a vast improvement upon the Tammany régime, has in some respects disappointed just expectations. It has by no means come up to the true standard of non-partisan municipal government. It has in notorious instances yielded to the pressure of partisan organizations — sometimes very much to the public detriment. In this way it has not increased the prestige of independent movements, but rather created a certain distrust with regard to them. It is therefore by no means unnatural that many citizens should wish to know the men to be voted for before identifying themselves with this enterprise. This means that the Citizens' Union will have to make its nominations for the principal offices before long if it wishes to continue its advance in strength. And it will have to nominate men of high character and ability in a manner of placing them above the suspicion of any bargain with any of the spoils organizations.

In this respect the public mind has become peculiarly sensitive. A trade with Tammany is, of course, considered out of the question. But a dicker with the Platt machine would be hardly less odious. In its latest development the Platt machine has approached Tammany so closely as to all the characteristic elements of wickedness and arrogance that there are many good citizens, even Republicans, who would hesitate to make a choice between the two. Moreover, the brazen insolence with which Mr. Platt, who has not even the qualifications of a voter in this city, presumes to play the dictator of our municipal government excites so much resentment that an extensive crumbling of his power before the close of this campaign would not be a matter of great surprise. Any political trade with him or any of his kind would, for the Citizens' Union, not only be an abandonment of principle, but also a blunder in tactics. For whatever the Citizens' Union lacks in organization and discipline it must make up in the enthusiasm of its followers. Any step calculated to shake their confidence would be destructive of its real strength and of its chances. For it the most honest and most courageous policy will, therefore, also be the safest — in fact, the only safe one.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.