Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/A Grave Responsibility

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The Republican leaders in Washington cannot too soon meet together to take with all possible soberness of spirit a survey of the political situation. They certainly do not all belong to that class of blind partisans who never learn and never forget anything; and the events of the last ten years cannot have failed to teach them the important lesson that neither of the two great parties commands votes enough to be sure of carrying a general election without the aid of the constantly increasing number of citizens whose political action is not regularly controlled by party allegiance.

After the election of General Harrison to the Presidency in 1888, all looked serene for the Republicans, who counted firmly upon a long lease of power. Two years later, in 1890, after the enactment of the McKinley tariff law, they suffered in the Congressional elections a defeat which made their heads swim. What was the cause? That in the opinion of a great many citizens the Republicans had abused their power in making a tariff for the benefit of favored industries without due regard for the interests — or, let us say, for the feelings — of the consumers, who at once felt the rise in the cost of living. The Republican defeat in 1892 followed. Then came the Cleveland administration and the Gorman Bryce tariff, and thereupon the Democratic defeat in the election of 1894. What was the cause of this overthrow? Republicans grossly deceive themselves if they think that they won because the American people resented the reduction of the McKinley duties by what Republican stump speakers called the “free-trade tariff.” Every intelligent person knows that it was no free-trade tariff at all — that it was, on the contrary, sufficiently protective to satisfy prudent protectionists, many of whom frankly said so. No, the Democratic defeat in 1894 was owing to the disgust created by the behavior of the Democrats in Congress, who had in the extra session of 1893 worked with the silver men to prevent the repeal of the Sherman act, and who at the regular session had disfigured the original tariff reform scheme by treacherously playing into the hands of the Sugar Trust and of other corporate interests, thus creating the impression that their party was at the mercy of selfish schemers and demagogues unfit to be trusted with the conduct of the government. This view of the case will readily be confirmed by those who at that period stood outside of the party camps, and thus had the best opportunities for observing the changes that were going on.

Still more grossly do the Republicans deceive themselves if they attribute Mr. McKinley's election to any charm exercised by the protection policy upon the popular mind. How subordinate a part the tariff played in the campaign everybody knows who had eyes to see and ears to hear. No fair-minded man can analyze the vote statistics of the late election without concluding that more than a million voters cast their ballots for Mr. McKinley not because of his being an advocate of protection, but in spite of it — having only the money issue in their minds. Had those votes been transferred to the other side, Mr. McKinley would have been overwhelmingly defeated.

These allies of the Republican party in the late election do not demand, nor would they accept, any reward in the shape of office. Neither were they so unreasonable as to expect that after the common victory the Republicans would adopt their views on the tariff question. But they clearly did have a right to expect two things: that the party put in power with their aid would use that power before all things for the object in behalf of which the common victory had been won; and, secondly, that in changing the tariff it would proceed with moderation, aiming mainly at the raising of a sufficient revenue for an economical administration of the government. The fairness of this expectation seemed to be fully recognized on the Republican side. During, and also immediately after, the campaign, Republican leaders caused it to be understood that the money question would, of course, have the precedence, and that the changes in the tariff would be kept within bounds. President McKinley, too, in his inaugural address, gave the money question the first place, urged with all possible emphasis the “severest economy” in public expenditures, and discussed the tariff question in a manner which, although distinctly favoring protection, still permitted the belief that no extreme measure was contemplated. The new President's first official utterance was, therefore, received in the kindliest spirit by the Democrats and independents who had aided in his election.

But the message with which the President opened the special session of Congress produced among the same class of citizens a feeling of disappointment. It not only had not a word on the money question, but directly recommended the postponement of all “other business” until after the passage of a new tariff act. And although several appropriation bills left over from the late Congress, which the chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means had characterized as excessive in their provisions, had to be re-enacted, the message contained not a hint at that “severest economy” which only a few days ago the President had so earnestly urged, and which, if practised, would greatly reduce the amount of revenue needed. The disappointment was much intensified by the actual appearance of the Dingley tariff bill, which, in important respects, reaches and even exceeds the highest measure of protection the country has ever known.

It is not intended here to discuss the intrinsic merit of the policy pursued, but only its political effects. If the Republicans in Washington read the newspapers, they will find that the silver Democratic press talks of that policy in a jeering tone, as if, looking to the future, it rather enjoyed the performance. The Democratic and independent papers which directly or indirectly supported McKinley do not conceal their indignation at what they consider a breach of faith. But, more significant still, many Republican organs, some of the most important, speak of it not only with disapproval, but with profound concern as to consequences, ominously presaging an overthrow like that of 1890. For this they have good reason; for the present policy bears exactly those features by which the violent reaction of 1890 was provoked. And the provocation is now even aggravated by the fact that a common victory won by a combination of forces is being taken advantage of by its immediate beneficiaries for purposes different from those for which the common battle had been fought. But in another far graver aspect is the present situation more serious than was that of 1890 and 1892. The defeat of the Republicans meant then only the passing of the government into the hands of another party, which, so long as Mr. Cleveland stood at its head, was bound to a conservative policy. But what would become of the country if the government should fall into the hands of the Democratic party as it is now?

To prevent a catastrophe so full of disaster and dishonor, a combination of forces will be needed at least as strong as that which prevented it last year. The possibility of such a combination should therefore be to every patriotic sound-money man an object of the utmost solicitude. That possibility would be preserved if the Republicans in power faithfully devoted themselves before all to the task of giving the country a sound monetary system, with liberal banking facilities, while at the same time providing adequate revenue for a government managed with the “severe economy” recommended in the President's inaugural. But that possibility is seriously jeoparded by a policy relegating the money question to the rear and launching forth new ventures of extreme protectionism, with a decided tendency to continue in the old ways of wanton extravagance. The Republicans should indulge in no delusions. They need only watch the local elections to perceive that the current is already against them. If this current continues, it will make the election of a Democratic House of Representatives next year probable. Any important mistake committed in Washington will make it certain. It is useless to say that the sound-money Democrats and the independents will be bound to support the Republicans in spite of it all, on account of the money question. There are many who would do so. But would there be enough of them? And will it not be criminal recklessness to count upon there remaining enough while all possible things are done to drive them away?

In thus risking, for whatever object, the future of the sound-money cause, and with it the honor and prosperity of the nation, the Republicans in power are taking upon themselves a responsibility so grave that a patriot, or even a mere politician of ordinary sagacity, might well shrink from it.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.