Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/More About the Municipal Problem

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While the example set by the Citizens' Union in New York has been thought worthy of imitation by a number of public-spirited citizens of Philadelphia, discouraging voices are heard elsewhere, and some of them are weighty enough to demand consideration. According to an interview published by a Chicago newspaper, Mr. Franklin MacVeagh, a gentleman of high standing, whose opinions command respect, has, although warmly sympathizing with the objects pursued by our Citizens' Union, been confirmed by the victory of Tammany Hall in the that “citizens' movements are necessarily doomed to failure,” and that “national party government should be the force in municipal government unintermittently.” Had he said that national party government will be the ruling force in municipal government, his utterance might be taken as merely a symptom of that pusillanimity which submits to an evil because that evil is very deeply rooted, or which pronounces a think impossible because it is difficult — a weakness of which Mr. MacVeagh cannot be suspected. But when he says that it should be so, then he either sees in municipal government by national parties the possibility of a solution of the great problem of good government in our large municipalities, or he gives up that problem as incapable of solution.

Nothing could be more obvious, theoretically, than that if the officers charged with the conduct of a municipal government are regularly elected or appointed for reasons and purposes other than the honest and efficient management of municipal affairs, that municipal government must, in the course of time, drift into inefficiency and corruption. And no theory has ever been more strikingly justified by experience. Here we have two great cities side by side, New York and Philadelphia, one being largely Democratic, the other largely Republican in politics. The “regular” Democratic organization in New York is Tammany Hall. The Tammany Society was originally the bona fide representative of certain political principles, and as such gained prestige and power. It won in the city of New York the support of a large party majority. The long possession of power, as is always the case with such organizations, brought to the front the selfish elements, and these gradually obtained control. The enjoyment of the municipal spoil became more and more its principal object, and it used its connection with the Democratic party in its State and national capacity to the end of maintaining itself as the ruler of the city for its own benefit. The result was the most corrupt and rapacious municipal government ever known. What happened in New York under the name of Democracy happened in Philadelphia, substantially at least, if not to the same extent, in the name of Republicanism. While the Republican party had originally been virtuous enough, rings of Republican politicians gradually formed themselves, obtained control of the municipal offices, and plundered the city without remorse. In each case the workers of the party machine were regularly quartered upon the municipal government. In each case national party spirit was invoked to sustain the plunderers lest the party in its national capacity suffer injury. In neither case could the plunderers have maintained themselves in power had not that party spirit stood by them.

The experience of New York and of Philadelphia has in its essential features been repeated in all our great cities in which one or the other of our national parties had a large and steady majority, and where municipal elections were run on national party lines. The interruptions of this rule consisted only in occasional popular uprisings against intolerable outrage, or in the accidental appearance in office of a man of public spirit and intrepidity. Where the two parties nearly balanced one another in strength, the abuses were, of course, usually less great; but even there those that existed were mostly traceable to the circumstance that the municipal offices were held by men who had been put into power not solely to serve the city, but to serve their party, and who, when serving their party, might expect to be sustained by it in serving themselves.

It is, of course, not pretended that the running of municipal elections on national party lines is the only source of the abuses prevailing in our municipal governments; but it is certainly the source of very many, and of the worst of them, and it is at the same time the most troublesome obstacle to an effective prevention or correction of them. Of this the recent municipal election in New York has again furnished a striking proof. With all the elements of strength Tammany possesses among certain classes of the population, it could not have been victorious had it not been supported by many thousands of Democrats who, although at heart opposed to Tammany practices, voted for the Tammany candidates merely because they bore the Democratic party label, and had not many thousands of Republicans, although at heart desirous of giving the city good government, withheld their votes from Mr. Low simply because they thought they had in this municipal contest to stand by the national Republican party organization. We have witnessed similar things in New York several times before, and, mutatis mutandis, in Philadelphia likewise.

How utterly blind and unprincipled this party spirits is appears in the case of Tammany in a very curious manner. Mr. Franklin MacVeagh makes the singular mistake of consoling himself with the impression that “the victory of Tammany means a victory for the conservative Democratic party.” This is a fantastic misconception of Tammany's being. Tammany cannot be regarded as representing any principle of national politics at all. Last year, some time before the Democratic National Convention, Tammany passed a set of strong sound-money resolutions. As soon as the Chicago convention had pronounced for free silver and nominated Bryan, Tammany supported Bryan and free silver, with all the enormities of the Chicago platform. It did this in order to remain the “regular Democratic organization.” This year, having only the spoils of New York city in view, and knowing that free silver and the Chicago platform were very unpopular in New York, Tammany ignored free silver and the Chicago platform altogether. But nothing can be more certain than that, if the next Democratic National Convention pronounces for free silver and Bryanism, Tammany will, no city spoils being then at stake, shout again for Bryanism and all it implies. If the Democratic national platform should endorse the Dingley tariff, Tammany would accept that too in order to remain “regular.” And then, when the next municipal election in New York approaches, it will either endorse or ignore that platform, as it may believe that this or that course will secure the most votes for keeping the organization in the enjoyment of the municipal spoil. The recent victory of Tammany Hall does, therefore, not “mean a victory for the conservative Democratic party,” nor for any other sort of Democracy. It means simply the victory of a thoroughly unprincipled band of spoilsmen who are Democrats only in name, and who use that name to allure to their support in municipal elections those Democrats whose party spirit is indiscriminating enough to accept anything that calls itself Democratic.

Tammany Hall — that is, an organization looking only for municipal spoil, and wearing the colors of a national party merely for the purpose of securing the votes of partisans who otherwise would not support it — is the natural evolution of the mixing up of national politics with municipal concerns. Similar organizations in more or less advanced perfection exist in all our cities where the municipal spoil is rich. They are strongest where one or the other national party has a large majority. Tammany is the most powerful of them all, because it is the oldest, the most systematic in its methods, and the most favored by local conditions. It is the model upon which similar organizations elsewhere will shape themselves. If we in New York accept the principle that our municipal contests should be run on national party lines, then we must also accept the fact that our city elections will always be fights — sometimes perhaps mere sham-battles — between a Croker on one and a Platt on the other side, interrupted at long intervals by popular uprisings against especially revolting abuses, which will have a short-lived effect, and then make room again for the regular order of things. And so elsewhere. This would mean the utter breaking down of democracy in municipal government.

The other question, whether national party politics can be eliminated from municipal concerns, is certainly not answered in the negative by the recent election in New York. After having at the first onset, against both party machines, polled nearly one-third of the whole vote, the Citizens' Union, profiting from the lessons taught by the first failure, and summoning all its courage and tenacity of purpose for a long campaign, will in due time be able to prove to the country that what must be done can be done. The prospect is surely no more hopeless than was that of the anti-slavery cause after Fremont's defeat in 1856.

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.