Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Wanted — A Republican Form of Government

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Wanted — A Republican Form of Government

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2103 (April 10, 1897), p. 355.


The Constitution of the United States, Article IV., Section 4, provides that “the United States shall guarantee to very State in this Union a republican form of government.” On this subject the Federalist, No. XLIII., says: “In a confederacy founded on republican principles, and composed of republican members, the superintending government ought clearly to possess authority to defend the system against aristocratic or monarchical innovations. The more intimate the nature of such an union may be, the greater interest have the members in the political institutions of each other; and the greater right to insist that the forms of the government under which the compact was entered into should be substantially maintained.” George Ticknor Curtis, the historian of the Constitution, in discussing what the makers of the Constitution may have had in their minds when framing the clause mentioned, observes that “history shows what is meant, in the American sense, by a republican government. History establishes the fact that in the American system of government the people are regarded as the sole original source of authority; that all legitimate government must rest upon their will.”

It is a highly interesting question what, from this point of view, the fathers of the Constitution would have thought of the present government of the State of New York, if they could have anticipated the possibility of the growth of anything like it in this country. And as the Federalist pertinently remarks, the character of our State government is a matter of serious concern not only to the inhabitants of the State itself, but also to “the other members of the confederacy.”

The present government of the State of New York is not easily classified. It has a Governor as the chief executive officer. It has a Legislature supposed to consist of representatives of the people, and to make the laws for the State. But above these there stands a power of which the Constitution and the laws know nothing, but which exercises supreme control. This power is embodied in a person called the “boss.” The now reigning boss, Mr. Thomas C. Platt, was until recently in so far a mere private individual as he held no official position or title in the accepted sense of the term. A few months ago, however, it pleased him to have himself elected to the Senate of the United States. But that office is merely auxiliary to his State bossship.

He makes no secret of the supreme power he wields in our State affairs. Of late years he has had the leaders of the ruling party in the Legislature regularly appear before him every Sunday, in a hotel parlor in the city of New York, to receive his orders for the coming week as to what bills should or should not pass, what measures should be introduced, or reported, or smothered in committee, and so on. And every Monday morning the legislative programme for the week has been published in the newspapers, very much like an official bulletin. Whatever legislation the boss opposes is defeated, and whatever he approves is sure to be put through, no matter who opposes it. This is so well known and recognized a rule that citizens who have business with the Legislature frequently deem it far less needful to present that business, with proper argument, to the law-makers, than to propitiate the boss in favor of it. That done, the rest will take care of itself. There could hardly be a more striking illustration of the supreme power exercised by the boss than the recent passage through the Legislature of the Greater New York charter — an immense piece of legislation, essentially affecting for good or evil the character and welfare of the greatest commercial city in this country, and one of the greatest in the world, with a population of over 3,000,000 souls, and a probable annual budget of expenditure of over $70,000,000. This charter, hurriedly drafted, and remonstrated against in whole or in part by the most important civic organizations of the city, went through the Legislature with lightning speed, without amendment, virtually without debate, certainly without serious consideration, simply because the boss had so ordered it. The history of constitutional government has no parallel to so high-handed a proceeding. In the matter of appointments to office, too, so far as the power of the party reaches, the dictation of the boss rules. Whenever he interferes, his favorite gets the place, and there is no hope for the man objected to by him.

How did the boss obtain this power? The uncontradicted story is that he levies upon the business corporations of New York large sums of money, under the name of campaign contributions, for which he is to protect their interests in the way of legislation; that these sums, of the use of which he renders no account whatever, are in part employed by him in supporting party newspapers, in securing the nomination and election of friendly politicians, and in rendering harmless such as are unfriendly; and that in this way he keeps in subjection to his will a large part of the country press and a host of active political workers throughout the State, some of whom he puts into influential places — all bound to him either by favors received or favors hoped for, and all fearing his disfavor as a sort of political death-warrant. Thus exercising an almost unlimited power in his party to reward or to punish, he has become the autocrat of that party, and through it the autocrat of the Legislature and of the State. The use he makes of his power is characteristic of its origin. Every attempt at reform, every movement to secure good government in State or municipality, finds him as an inveterate, unscrupulous, and potent enemy in its way. His first aim is always to fortify and extend his own power.

By whatever name we may call a government like this, it certainly is not “substantially” republican. On the contrary, it possesses in striking completeness the attributes of monarchical absolutism. There is no monarch in Europe, except the Emperor of Russia and the Sultan of Turkey, who controls the law-making power with so unlimited an authority, who levies and spends his revenues with so little responsibility, and who feels himself so free to defy public opinion, as does the boss of the ruling party in the State of New York. The State still has the outward forms of republican government, but the vital essence of republicanism is gone.

The struggle of the friends of good government against boss rule in New York is beset with extraordinary difficulties. The sums obtained by levying upon the corporations put at the disposal of the boss ample resources of blackmail and bribery. His control of a large part of the country press and of a vast and well-drilled party machine, thorough which he directs nominating caucuses and conventions, enables him to wield a most effective system of political terrorism. An army of spoils-hunters clings to him as the power that can open to them rich opportunities for preying upon the people. This is a formidable combination of forces. Those who combat it strive not only to protect the State and its municipalities against maladministration, corruption, and robbery, but to restore to the people that republican government which, according to the Federal Constitution, “the United States shall guarantee to very State in the Union.” They are not foolish enough to expect that the national authority will actively interfere to deliver this State from boss rule. But they have a right to expect that the national authority will at least do nothing to strengthen that boss rule, and thus to render the restoration of true republican government in this State still more difficult.

Boss Platt, as a Senator of the United States, is now seeking to secure the Federal offices in New York for men who are his tools. Every office so filled would be a new stronghold of the boss power. President McKinley cannot make such an appointment without taking upon himself the responsibility of re-enforcing a usurpation utterly subversive of that republican government which the Constitution binds the United States to guarantee to every State in the Union.

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.