Philip Dru: Administrator/Chapter XXXIV

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Chapter XXXIV
Selwyn’s Story

The further Administrator Dru carried his progress of reform, the more helpful he found Selwyn. Dru’s generous treatment of him had brought in return a grateful loyalty.

One stormy night, after Selwyn had dined with Dru, he sat contentedly smoking by a great log fire in the library of the small cottage which Dru occupied in the barracks.

“This reminds me,” he said, “of my early boyhood, and of the fireplace in the old tavern where I was born.”

General Dru had long wanted to know of Selwyn, and, though they had arranged to discuss some important business, Dru urged the former Senator to tell him something of his early life.

Selwyn consented, but asked that the lights be turned off so that there would be only the glow from the fire, in order that it might seem more like the old days at home when his father’s political cronies gathered about the hearth for their confidential talks.

And this was Selwyn’s story:--

My father was a man of small education and kept a tavern on the outer edge of Philadelphia. I was his only child, my mother dying in my infancy. There was a bar connected with the house, and it was a rendezvous for the politicians of our ward. I became interested in politics so early that I cannot remember the time when I was not. My father was a temperate man, strong-willed and able, and I have often wondered since that he was content to end his days without trying to get beyond the environments of a small tavern.

He was sensitive, and perhaps his lack of education caused him to hesitate to enter a larger and more conspicuous field.

However, he was resolved that I should not be hampered as he was, and I was, therefore, given a good common school education first, and afterwards sent to Girard College, where I graduated, the youngest of my class.

Much to my father’s delight, I expressed a desire to study law, for it seemed to us both that this profession held the best opportunity open to me. My real purpose in becoming a lawyer was to aid me in politics, for it was clear to both my father and me that I had an unusual aptitude therefor.

My study of law was rather cursory than real, and did not lead to a profound knowledge of the subject, but it was sufficient for me to obtain admittance to the bar, and it was not long, young as I was, before my father’s influence brought me a practice that was lucrative and which required but little legal lore.

At that time the ward boss was a man by the name of Marx. While his father was a German, he was almost wholly Irish, for his father died when he was young, and he was reared by a masculine, masterful, though ignorant Irish mother.

He was my father’s best friend, and there were no secrets between them. They seldom paid attention to me, and I was rarely dismissed even when they had their most confidential talks. In this way, I early learned how our great American cities are looted, not so much by those actually in power, for they are of less consequence than the more powerful men behind them.

If any contract of importance was to be let, be it either public or private, Marx and his satellites took their toll. He, in his turn, had to account to the man above, the city boss.

If a large private undertaking was contemplated, the ward boss had to be seen and consulted as to the best contractors, and it was understood that at least five per cent. more than the work was worth had to be paid, otherwise, there would be endless trouble and delay. The inspector of buildings would make trouble; complaints would be made of obstructing the streets and sidewalks, and injunctions would be issued. So it was either to pay, or not construct. Marx provided work for the needy, loaned money to the poor, sick and disabled, gave excursions and picnics in the summer: for all of this others paid, but it enabled him to hold the political control of the ward in the hollow of his hand. The boss above him demanded that the councilmen from his ward should be men who would do his bidding without question.

The city boss, in turn, trafficked with the larger public contracts, and with the granting and extensions of franchises. It was a fruitful field, for there was none above him with whom he was compelled to divide.

The State boss treated the city bosses with much consideration, for he was more or less dependent upon them, his power consisting largely of the sum of their power.

The State boss dealt in larger things, and became a national figure. He was more circumspect in his methods, for he had a wider constituency and a more intelligent opposition.

The local bosses were required to send to the legislature “loyal” party men who did not question the leadership of the State boss.

The big interests preferred having only one man to deal with, which simplified matters; consequently they were strong aids in helping him retain his power. Any measure they desired passed by the legislature was first submitted to him, and he would prune it until he felt he could put it through without doing too great violence to public sentiment. The citizens at large do not scrutinize measures closely; they are too busy in their own vineyards to bother greatly about things which only remotely or indirectly concern them.

This selfish attitude and indifference of our people has made the boss and his methods possible. The “big interests” reciprocate in many and devious ways, ways subtle enough to seem not dishonest even if exposed to public view.

So that by early education I was taught to think that the despoliation of the public, in certain ways, was a legitimate industry.

Later, I knew better, but I had already started my plow in the furrow, and it was hard to turn back. I wanted money and I wanted power, and I could see both in the career before me.

It was not long, of course, before I had discernment enough to see that I was not being employed for my legal ability. My income was practically made from retainers, and I was seldom called upon to do more than to use my influence so that my client should remain undisturbed in the pursuit of his business, be it legitimate or otherwise. Young as I was, Marx soon offered me a seat in the Council. It was my first proffer of office, but I declined it. I did not want to be identified with a body for which I had such a supreme contempt. My aim was higher. Marx, though, was sincere in his desire to further my fortunes, for he had no son, and his affection for my father and me was genuine.

I frankly told him the direction in which my ambition lay, and he promised me his cordial assistance. I wanted to get beyond ward politics, and in touch with the city boss.

It was my idea that, if I could maintain myself with him, I would in time ask him to place me within the influence of the State boss, where my field of endeavor would be as wide as my abilities would justify.

I did not lose my identity with my ward, but now my work covered all Philadelphia, and my retainers became larger and more numerous, for I was within the local sphere of the “big interests.”

At that time the boss was a man by the name of Hardy. He was born in the western part of the State, but came to Philadelphia when a boy, his mother having married the second time a man named Metz, who was then City Treasurer and who afterwards became Mayor.

Hardy was a singular man for a boss; small of frame, with features almost effeminate, and with anything but a robust constitution, he did a prodigious amount of work.

He was not only taciturn to an unusual degree, but he seldom wrote, or replied to letters. Yet he held an iron grip upon the organization.

His personal appearance and quiet manners inspired many ambitious underlings to try to dislodge him, but their failure was signal and complete.

He had what was, perhaps, the most perfectly organized machine against which any municipality had ever had the misfortune to contend.

Hardy made few promises and none of them rash, but no man could truthfully say that he ever broke one. I feel certain that he would have made good his spoken word even at the expense of his fortune or political power.

Then, too, he played fair, and his henchmen knew it. He had no favorites whom he unduly rewarded at the expense of the more efficient. He had likes and dislikes as other men, but his judgment was never warped by that. Success meant advancement, failure meant retirement.

And he made his followers play fair. There were certain rules of the game that had to be observed, and any infraction thereof meant punishment.

The big, burly fellows he had under him felt pride in his physical insignificance, and in the big brain that had never known defeat.

When I became close to him, I asked him why he had never expanded; that he must have felt sure that he could have spread his jurisdiction throughout the State, and that the labor in the broader position must be less than in the one he occupied. His reply was characteristic of the man. He said he was not where he was from choice, that environment and opportunity had forced him into the position he occupied, but that once there, he owed it to his followers to hold it against all comers. He said that he would have given it up long ago, if it had not been for this feeling of obligation to those who loved and trusted him. To desert them, and to make new responsibilities, was unthinkable from his viewpoint.

That which I most wondered at in Hardy was, his failure to comprehend that the work he was engaged in was dishonest. I led cautiously up to this one day, and this was his explanation:

“The average American citizen refuses to pay attention to civic affairs, contenting himself with a general growl at the tax rate, and the character and inefficiency of public officials. He seldom takes the trouble necessary to form the Government to suit his views.

“The truth is, he has no cohesive or well-digested views, it being too much trouble to form them. Therefore, some such organization as ours is essential. Being essential, then it must have funds with which to proceed, and the men devoting their lives to it must be recompensed, so the system we use is the best that can be devised under the circumstances.

“It is like the tariff and internal revenue taxes by which the National Government is run, that is, indirect. The citizen pays, but he does not know when he pays, nor how much he is paying.

“A better system could, perhaps, be devised in both instances, but this cannot be done until the people take a keener interest in their public affairs.”

Hardy was not a rich man, though he had every opportunity of being so. He was not avaricious, and his tastes and habits were simple, and he had no family to demand the extravagances that are undermining our national life. He was a vegetarian, and he thought, and perhaps rightly, that in a few centuries from now the killing of animals and the eating of their corpses would be regarded in the same way as we now think of cannibalism.

He divided the money that came to him amongst his followers, and this was one of the mainsprings of his power.

All things considered, it is not certain but that he gave Philadelphia as good government as her indifferent citizens deserved.