Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/November 1892/Editor's Table
IN an address on The Impending Political Epoch, delivered last fall before the Ohio Society of New York, the Hon. John M. Ashley pointed out some features in the structure and workings of the Government of the United States which recent developments have shown to be full of peril to the integrity and security of our institutions. They may be described in a group by the phrase, "Unequal distribution of political power." The habit of regarding the Constitution of the United States as a perfect instrument, testifying to extraordinary wisdom and foresight on the part of its framers, ceased many years ago. The trials of the war and reconstruction disclosed many weak and some mischievous features in it, the existence of which was confessed, while they were hardly remedied, in the amendments. The course of events has disclosed other features which may also, in a more or less distant future, prove equally mischievous with those which we have tried to remedy. The most obvious of these is the roundabout system of electing a President by Electoral Colleges chosen by the voters of the several States. The framers of the Constitution are supposed to have intended to provide for the election as President of the man whom the body of electors, carefully chosen for their wisdom and experience as well as for their integrity, should decide to be most fit for the office. The plan has had no such effect, but has simply stood as an obstacle to the free exercise of their choice by the people. There is more positive mischief concealed in it, for, while the electors now respect the choice of the people, so far as it is shown in the nominating conventions, the case might arise in which they should combine to substitute for the ostensible candidate some man who had never been thought of, and who would be rejected by the people at once if he were proposed to them. Another danger is seen by Mr. Ashley in the provision that leaves the determination of the manner of choosing the electors to the Legislatures of the States, and thereby to the caprice of the party which may happen to be temporarily in the majority in the Legislature. A minority securing control for a single year may thus disfranchise or greatly weaken the influence of the majority of the voters of the State at the ensuing Presidential election—as the Republicans charge that the Democrats have attempted to do in Michigan, and a3 has been recently demonstrated by the action of the Republicans in Connecticut. The events that gave rise to the Electoral Commission in 1876 tell us of a danger growing out of the electoral college plan that we have already had to meet.
Possibilities of great mischief working in the electoral colleges and in the Senate are concealed in the powers possessed under the Constitution by States whose population is small and not likely to grow. Each State is entitled to two senators, and, according to the Constitution, it can not be deprived without its consent of its equal representation in the Senate. Under this provision, Nevada, whose population is not one third that of a normal congressional district, and is declining, is the peer in senatorial power of New York or any of the larger States; and there are now seventeen States in the Union whose combined population is that of the State of New York; but they have thirty-four senators to New York's two. Six new States, whose combined population is not more than enough to make one commonwealth, three of which will probably never have a population sufficient to entitle them to more than one representative, were admitted into the Union by the last Congress—for partisan reasons.
It is provided in the Constitution that if the electoral colleges fail to choose a President, the election shall be made by the House of Representatives, when each State, large or small, shall be entitled to cast one vote. Mr. Ashley shows in a table that under the present apportionment the House of Representatives being composed of three hundred and fifty-six members, twenty-three small States, being just a majority of the forty-four, having altogether only seventy-two members, could decide the election—that is, the case might arise in which "less than one sixth of the members of the House, representing less than one sixth of the population of the nation, can elect the President." Further, of these seventy-two members, fifty-five could cast the votes of the twenty-three States, making the discrepancy still worse. It is not practically likely that the small States will ever combine their votes in this way, but the possibility exists.
A more imminently threatening danger to our institutions, extra-constitutional, but hardly the less binding for that, exists in the nominating convention system, which "has grown to be a monster political despotism, and in both parties is to day the absolute master of the people." Under it the people are in effect, in a large proportion of cases, deprived of all voice in the management of public affairs. It works in with several features of the law in the manner of conducting elections so as to leave helpless the voter who would be independent, and to promote the schemes of designing, dishonest men. For the latter purpose it is a most admirable instrument.
All these defects in our system of government call for some means of remedy, and the subject should be one of anxious thought to all the friends of popular institutions. Mr. Ashley's object in calling attention to them was to bring out the remedy he has devised, which he presents in the form of a series of constitutional amendments. It is not within our province to discuss the merits of his plan. We point out the need, and remark that it has engaged the serious attention of at least one earnest thinker.
Constitutions can not be made to order to last for all time. Governments, like all other things, are a growth, an evolution, are affected by the changes in the conditions of the medium, and need to be conformed to them. Conditions inevitably arise from time to time that can not be foreseen, and must be met as they appear. Our Constitution was for a long time considered nearly perfect, because it well met the conditions for which it was made. That modifications and new provisions should be found to be needed in time is not the fault of the instrument or of its makers, but a consequence of the inexorable law of evolution. While hasty and trivial tinkering are to be deprecated, the existence of that law should be recognized, and there should be no hesitation in adapting the Constitution to its workings.
If we were asked to name what in our opinion is the most important service of science to modern civilization, we should say that it consists in the means that have been given to man to prevent the spread of epidemic disease. It is not so very long ago that large cities the world over were quite unable to exclude such a disease as cholera, and when once it had gained a foothold they were wholly at its mercy until change of season or some other unexplained cause changed the conditions favorable to its spread. Attention was for centuries concentrated on methods of treatment, and down to fifty years ago so little was known of the causes which produced the disease, or of the means of hindering its distribution, that the doctors themselves not rarely became the innocent carriers of its poison. With its cause a mystery, and resistless apparently in its advance, it is no wonder that the frightful mortality attending it struck terror to the hearts of the people among whom it appeared. But, thanks to experience and the scientific investigation of many observers, all this has gradually been changed. It has been abundantly shown both here and in England that, with suitable sanitary precautions, such as are within the reach of every enlightened community, not only cholera but other diseases which tend to become epidemic can, if taken in time, be arrested in their progress and ultimately stamped out altogether by the prompt and energetic application of ordinary hygienic rules. This is now so well understood float epidemics of any kind, particularly in centers of population under municipal control, are justly regarded as evidence of official neglect or mismanagement.
In the case of cholera the work of the sanitary authorities is really very simple. It has long been attempted to exclude the disease from cities and towns by means of quarantine, the prohibition of immigration, and of the importation of certain classes of merchandise. These measures, however, seriously conflicting as they do with the self-interest of individuals and corporations, have always proved more or less ineffective, until it has become very plain that they can not be relied upon to keep out the scourge. In England this is now generally admitted in practice, as the authorities interfere far less with commerce than formerly, but give strict attention to the immigrant and the cargo after they are landed.
The real concern of the sanitarian, then, is with the conditions of living among the masses of the people in the district under his charge, and, if past experience is any guide, his chief duty will be to promote, and, if need be, enforce the virtue of cleanliness, interpreting that word in its widest meaning. Filth is a necessity to the very existence of cholera. It has been the one uniform condition present in all the epidemics of which we have any record, and is the usual vehicle for the transmission of the disease. On the other hand, purity and wholesomeness are its deadly enemies, and in proportion as these are secured will the danger of epidemics decrease. Medical authorities are generally agreed that cholera is propagated by a specific poison. It matters not whether we call this a virus, a germ, or a bacillus, the important point to observe is that whatever its nature it must gain a lodgment in the system before the disease can develop. So far as known this poison or germ is only produced by the disease. It is thrown off from the bodies of the sick in the discharges from the digestive tract, and, if not destroyed at once, is ready for its career of destruction. Through defective drains or other channels it may pass into a well or stream which furnishes the drinking-water to many families. This is one of the most common ways for the poison to gain an entrance into the bodies of the healthy. Dirty food and the use of articles soiled with choleraic discharges may also convey it, but most authorities assert that it is never carried through the medium of the air—that is, the disease is contagious, but, unlike scarlet fever and measles, is not infectious. Physicians and nurses work among it with impunity, even in its most virulent form, so long as rigid cleanliness of person and clothing is observed.
The only recorded death from the disease among the attendants in Russian hospitals during the present outbreak is that of a nurse who heedlessly swallowed the remains of a cholera patient's dinner. Drinking-water, however, is by far the most frequent vehicle of the disease, being chiefly responsible for all our most fatal epidemics. During the last London epidemic, in 1866, when the mortality rose to 904 in a single week, Dr. Farr found that the outbreak was confined mainly to the area supplied with water by the East London Water Company. This was drawn from the river Lea, which on investigation proved to be polluted. The supply was stopped, and the deaths decreased from week to week until the disease disappeared from the district. Other London districts that had suffered terribly in preceding epidemics escaped almost entirely in this one, due likewise to the improved drainage and water-supply that had been provided by the authorities during the interval.
Cases of similar import, coming to light during the present epidemic in Europe, are numerous, and equally striking.
These facts point unmistakably to the means required for limiting the spread of the disease. The strict isolation of the sick, the immediate destruction of all discharges and of any articles tainted by them, careful watchfulness concerning the purity of the water-supply of the city or district, and the use of boiled water where possible taint is suspected, with equal vigilance regarding the quality and purity of the food—in a word, the nearest practicable approach to absolute cleanliness of the person, of what he eats, drinks, and wears, and of the home and its surroundings—is the surest guarantee of safety from attack and a certain protection against the occurrence of epidemics.
To secure these important conditions in the households of the masses in our large cities something more is needed than the mere force of sanitary authority. The people themselves should be made to realize that their individual cooperation is indispensable. This may reasonably be expected when they come to understand the causes which give rise to epidemics, and the protective measures that are within their reach. The result will be hastened by adapting our public-school education a little more closely to the needs of modern life, and teaching a generation of boys and girls the simple principles of household hygiene. Dwellers in cities will then demand sanitary provisions that have now to be forced upon them, and the days of scares and mobs in the face of threatened epidemics will be over.