Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The Right to Nominate
It appears that the difficulties the Citizens' Union has to overcome in order to meet the views of Mr. Thomas C. Platt as to what kind of a municipal government Greater New York should have for the coming four years, and how the candidates should be brought out, are fairly insurmountable. Some time ago, when there was a rumor that the committee of the Citizens' Union intended to make nominations for the municipal offices about the middle of June, Mr. Platt violently denounced the temerity of such a purpose, and all his organs vociferously admonished the Citizens' Union that it was its solemn duty to “go slow.” The Citizens' Union actually did “go slow,” although probably more in obedience to its own good judgment than in obedience to Mr. Platt's behest. It did not make any nominations about the middle of June. It only resolved to address to the citizens of Greater New York the respectful inquiry whether the nomination of Mr. Seth Low as a candidate for the Mayoralty would be agreeable to them, the intention being that if affirmative answers to this inquiry were received in sufficient number to indicate a widespread popular desire for it, the nomination of Mr. Seth Low should then be formally made, in compliance with the popular will. This proceeding, which in a community enjoying democratic institutions is manifestly most proper, being in evident accord with the principles of popular government, seems to have exasperated Mr. Platt still more; for he caused it to be violently denounced by his agent, Mr. Lemuel Quigg, as an attempt to “overreach and humiliate” him by encroaching upon what he considers his personal prerogative — namely, the right to nominate the candidates for the municipal offices to be supported against Tammany Hall.
The right to nominate a candidate for office belongs to every citizen as clearly and as essentially as does the right to determine which candidate he will vote for at the election. It is recognized by the law. Every citizen may, if he chooses, nominate his own candidates at every election, and write their names upon the official ballot. Certain specified numbers of citizens may by way of petition demand the printing upon the official ballots of the names of candidates nominated by themselves. In doing so they encroach upon nobody else's rights. They simply exercise their own. In truth, they use this method for the very purpose, not of encroaching upon the right of others, but of resisting attempted encroachments upon their own rights. It is a notorious fact that combinations of politicians inside of our political parties, commonly called “the machines,” have managed by way of organized co-operation to get and to keep control of the nominating caucuses or conventions, and thus to dictate the nominations according to their liking. In some instances, notably in the Republican party in New York, that control has passed into the hands of one man. In this way nominations are brought about which very frequently are not in accord with the sentiments of the majority of the party, and in the making of which that majority had really no voice. That “the machine,” or the boss ruling it, will ordinarily nominate no candidates who cannot be counted upon, if elected, to serve their selfish ends, and that thus the general interest is very often shamelessly sacrificed is a matter too notorious to need elaborate proof. It may be said without exaggeration that this perversion of the nominating machinery of our political parties is one of the most dangerous evils of our political life. It tends to exclude men of high public spirit and of genuine self-respect from places of power and responsibility, and to drive them away from active participation in public affairs altogether. It impairs the value of the elective franchise by frequently limiting the choice of citizens between the candidates of the different parties to a choice between evils. Thus it most seriously imperils the working of our free institutions which are based upon universal suffrage.
A reform of the nominating process, which will bring the nomination of candidates effectually under the control of public opinion, is one of the most important, and, it seems, one of the most difficult, problems before us. Various methods have been suggested, which, although not lacking ingenuity, fail to accomplish the essential object, namely, to place the nominating machinery securely beyond the grasp of a well drilled and disciplined organization of unscrupulous politicians. The method adopted by the Citizens' Union, which consists in asking every citizen for his opinion as to whether he wishes a certain other citizen to be nominated as a candidate, appears to be the simplest, the most straightforward, and the most democratic plan. That it is the most perfect method for general introduction nobody will pretend. However, it admirably fits the situation or things in Greater New York. A man has been found who, in the estimation of many of his fellow citizens, possesses in an exceptional measure three qualifications of character, ability, and experience which the Mayor of Greater New York should have. Those who think so request the voters of Greater New York, without distinction of party, to speak out if they are of the same mind. The formal presentation of the candidate will depend upon the response this request meets with. This proceeding is expected to result in the nomination of the best man for a very important office. Whether the same method would answer in a constituency less compact than that of Greater New York, or in a canvass not conducted on non-partisan lines, or with a candidate less conspicuously qualified for the place to be filled, may fairly be questioned. But as it answers our local conditions now, it may answer similar conditions again in the future; and its success in the present instance, although not solving the problem of a general reform of the nominating process, may at least serve to point out the direction in which the solution of that vital problem may be successfully sought. In this respect the present experiment in New York is of great importance to the whole country.
But now Mr. Platt steps in with his peremptory veto. He does not deny that the candidate in view, Mr. Seth Low, is the best man for the place. He does not suggest a man that would be a better, or even as good, a Mayor, or a stronger, or even as strong, a candidate. He simply proclaims through his agents that those who now speak of Mr. Low as a candidate for the Mayoralty, and who try to obtain the opinion of their fellow-citizens concerning that candidacy, are meddling with a business which is his and not theirs. And he causes a resolution to be passed in the Republican County Committee, declaring that “no candidacy can prove a unifying force among the friends of good government in this city which is formally presented prior to the meeting of the Republican city convention, or without regard to its action.” What does this mean? Considering the indisputable fact that the Republican city convention will be merely a gathering of Mr. Platt's tools, bound to register and execute his decrees as to candidates as well as to policies, it means that unless the citizens of New York recognize his power to say first who shall be the candidate of “the friends of good government” for the Mayoralty, there shall be no union of such friends in this city, no matter how excellent the candidate presented by those citizens may be. There is something intensely grotesque in this assumption of dictatorship over the citizens of New York, which even those must appreciate who are craven enough to submit to it. It is made almost ludicrous by the fact that Mr. Platt is not even a citizen of Greater New York, but an alien among us, who votes in far-away Tioga County.
Mr. Platt evidently misunderstands the situation. When he speaks of “good government,” every intelligent person laughs. What he aims at when he speaks of an anti-Tammany campaign is a municipal government ruled by the Republican organization of which he is the dictator. What the Citizens' Union aims at is simply good, honest municipal government, without regard to political parties. Mr. Platt, in fact, appeals to the citizens of New York to join him in an anti-Tammany movement for the benefit of his machine. The Citizens' Union appeals to the citizens of New York to join it not merely in an anti-Tammany movement, but in an anti-rascality, anti-corruption, anti-spoils movement — not for the benefit of any organization, but for the benefit of the city and of all the inhabitants thereof. When Mr. Platt speaks of opposing a union of the friends of good government unless it be effected upon terms dictated by him, he simply shows that, whatever he may say, he at heart approves of the notorious declaration of Mr. Lauterbach — that he would rather see the municipal government in the hands of Tammany than in the hands of men who, as city officers, will aim only at the public good without recognizing any obligation to the Platt machine. Of this the citizens of New York, and especially public-spirited Republicans, should take due notice.