Public Letter to Oswald Ottendorfer
Although I read the Staats-Zeitung with tolerable regularity, yet several numbers, the contents of which have only now been communicated to me, escaped my notice during a recent journey. In them I find the accusation directed against me that I have “turned back” upon the path which I have been travelling for years; that my “present course is absolutely irreconcilable with all that I have advocated and commended until within the last few weeks”; that I am “treading under foot my own convictions,” etc., etc.
Wherefore these charges? Because I prefer Mr. Hayes to the Democratic ticket. You will admit, on calm reflection, that the accusations hurled against me are very serious, and your sense of justice will not deny to me an examination of them in the same journal which made them. I request of you, therefore, the publication of this letter in the Staats-Zeitung, not merely by means of extracted passages, but entire.
What convictions, then, are those which you so carelessly accuse me of having “trodden under foot”? Of course you can only refer to those which touch the most important questions of our political life. Can you, yourself, really believe that I must have become false to my own convictions in regard to the financial question, because I prefer the Republican to the Democratic candidates? Let us see who has changed his views!
You know fully as well as I do, and have often enough admitted the fact in your paper, that, with reference to the financial question, the Republican party is assuredly not all that it should be, but that it is much “sounder” on the whole than the Democratic party. The history of the last few years, the votes in Congress, the elections in single States, the party organs, furnish indisputable evidence that a heavy majority of the “soft-money” element, and about all the lust of repudiation that exists, are to be found on the Democratic side. Now, if such a party — which still almost daily, as I write, shows itself through its majority in the House of Representatives hostile to hard-money — would nevertheless have us believe that the hard-money interest would be safe in its hands, it must of necessity give us, both by explanations and by acts, stronger guarantees than we should require of a party with better antecedents. In order to deserve confidence, the Democratic Convention should at least have adopted a hard-money platform, free from all stipulations and compromises, and then have nominated for the Presidency — and no less for the Vice-Presidency — candidates whose principles in regard to the hard-money question stood beyond the reach of doubt. Less than this could not have been demanded. And what has the Democratic party done in its Convention? After arraigning the Republicans for great sins of omission, chiefly to raise a dust for the concealment of its own far worse record, it proposes as the only specific measure the repeal of the resumption bill of January, 1875!
You and I have been of the same opinion, that the resumption bill of 1875 was insufficient in its details, but of value as the distinct promise of the acceptance of specie payments on the side of the Government. You and I during the session of this Congress have condemned every attempt to repeal the resumption bill as a maneuver of the inflationists. With perfect truth you have declared in the Staats-Zeitung that “such a repeal without at the same time accepting some practical measure for specie payments would be a moral victory of the inflationists.” You and I know that for two years past the battlecry of the inflationists has been the repeal of the resumption act, and if now the Democratic platform in acting upon the finance question presents as its only specific demand that the resumption bill shall be repealed, every honest hard-money man who seriously considers the question will ask what does this mean? The reason can certainly not be that which the platform itself puts forth, that the promise to resume is in itself the hindrance to resumption, for among rational people it is an unheard of thing that a man was unable to pay his debt simply because he had promised to do so. No, that demand was incorporated into the platform for the simple purpose of pacifying the inflationists and binding them to the party by concession. This is no mere conjecture. The chairman of the Platform Committee openly declared in the Convention that this platform was a compromise, against which the hard-money party of the Eastern States had already strongly protested. And they have justly protested, because, as you yourself admit, this was a “moral victory of the inflationists.” The extreme inflationists in the Convention were not satisfied with this compromise; naturally so, for a compromise never satisfies, because it only gives a part of what is desired. And what was the argument whereby the chairman of the Committee endeavored to move them to accept a compromise? That in this question the Convention could not retrograde further without ruining every chance of success for the Democratic party in the State of New York. This had its effect, and the compromise was accepted by a large majority. Thus, for the sake of victory, the inflationists refrained from further demands. But what follows a party victory? Must not every hard-money man, who is faithful to his convictions, first of all ask this question?
Still this was not the only concession which was made to the inflationists. The Convention with singular unanimity nominated Mr. Hendricks as candidate for the Vice-Presidency. Who is Mr. Hendricks? You name him in your journal “a politician without character, who has no views of his own concerning the question of finance.” But you know just as well as I that he was one of the favorite candidates of the inflationists, and that characterizes his position in regard to the question of finance. And this man is candidate for Vice-President with Mr. Tilden! It is true that men have been nominated on the same ticket heretofore who were unequal in ability and strength of character, but for the first time in the history of the country the Democratic Convention has furnished an unheard of example of placing two candidates together, who on the chief question, represented exactly opposite principles. Why was this done? To pacify the hard-money men by giving them a chance. And what chance? The chance that in case Mr. Tilden, who is no more immortal than you or I, should be over taken by the fate of mortals, the favorite candidate of the soft-money party would possess the Executive power of the Nation. What is therefore the meaning of the compromise made with the soft-money party in the Democratic Convention? In case of a Democratic victory the soft-money Democrats would in all probability, as at present, control the majority of the party in the House of Representatives. We may accept this as very nearly certain. The hard-money Democrats would then, in accordance with the platform, help them to repeal the resumption act, as the most of them already do. An unfortunate casualty, affecting a single human life, might then deliver the Executive power into the hands of the soft-money party, and, so far as the Senate is concerned, a hard-money majority there is so precarious that a few Democratic successes in the Western States where the inflationists have the upper hand might turn that body in the same direction. What effect will such a compromise have on the inflationists in the Democratic party? Will it convert them to the hard-money side? Exactly the opposite; it will encourage them to persevere boldly in their policy, since it gives them a chance eventually to get a part if not the whole power of the government in their hands. I am convinced that but a little while ago you would have repelled with indignation the thought of such a game of chance with the fortunes of the country; and you have no right to be surprised if others who feel the gravity of the question do the same thing now. You cannot deny that you are running the risk of immeasurable misfortune. There is no use in lightly ignoring the possibilities of the situation, for in case of a Democratic victory, neither you nor all the hard-money men together could effect the least toward preventing such a disaster. In my opinion we have no right to stake the welfare of the country upon a card. I do not deny that the Republican platform might have been more pronounced in this respect; but since I am compelled to choose between a party which by the most enticing forms of speech and a compromise in its platform and candidates stretches out a finger with a hope of the whole hand to the paper-money party, and another which, in regard to this question, has nominated two equally reliable candidates through whom we hazard no possible disaster, and whose success makes at least probable a corresponding majority in Congress, I cannot without violating my hard-money convictions accept other than the latter. I ask you only who in this respect has trodden under foot his convictions?
So much in regard to the question of finance. As to the question of reform I most willingly acknowledge the services of Mr. Tilden in his war with the canal rings; but however important and necessary such services may be, the reform question, even when it is transferred to a greater field of action, is therewith by no means exhausted. In reality this is the least part of it. Furthermore, one thing seems to me assured in any case. However the election may result, the sweeping out of the corrupt officials and combinations which now dishonor our public service will be sure to take place. If it is said that the election of Mr. Hayes would lead to a mere continuation of the Grant Administration, it is the chatter of party, no less absurd than if his letter of acceptance were [called] a glorification of Grantism. Mr. Grant himself has a better understanding of the matter. The news from Washington cannot have escaped you, that President Grant has found Mr. Hayes's letter of acceptance “very inappropriate,” and has taken it almost as a personal affront. He will no doubt express his feelings to a further extent in the course of the campaign. It does not occur to me to elevate Mr. Hayes to a demigod because he is a candidate for the Presidency, but he is universally recognized as a man of scrupulous integrity, of a strong feeling of honor, of a quiet energy — a man who has fulfilled all public duties, which have ever devolved upon him, with success, and in every respect without reproach; a man in whom the desire to restore and preserve honor to the government springs from the natural tendency of his nature, and not from artifice or affected feeling. It is quite as well known that in his official capacity he has repelled the bad elements of party and surrounded himself with those most deserving of respect. In the Presidency he would therein not be less successful, especially as through his decided rejection of a second term he would withdraw from the influences which would surround him all opportunity to excite in him any other emotion than that of making a single term honorable. This is no extravagant praise, but it has the advantage of being true. The realization of this feature of reform seems to me therefore as thoroughly secure through Hayes as through Tilden.
But it has always been a very important matter to me, not only that corrupt officials should be brought to punishment, but that the most profitable source of corruption — a system of plunder — should be checked by a permanent and thorough reform of the civil service. The question, and the most important question is, How may this end be attained? Now, if I am convinced that Mr. Hayes will undertake with honest will and carry out with all energy exactly such a thorough reform of the civil service as that for which I have striven, what right have you to assert that by supporting Mr. Hayes I tread my convictions under foot? Have I reasons for these convictions? Let us see. In his letter of acceptance, which in this respect leaves far behind the Republican as well as the Democratic platform, Mr. Hayes, has presented the clearest and completest program of civil service reform with which I am acquainted. Untiring and impartial prosecutions and punishment of dishonorable officials; no more appointments by the request of Members of Congress; no removals except for deficient service; the official no longer the tool of party; honesty, capacity and fidelity the only claim to official promotion, thereby total abolition of the system of plunder; the reform secured by legislative means. Do you know a better program? Would not its realization fulfil all which I have advocated in accordance with my convictions?
But you may say Mr. Hayes is not the man to carry out such a program. Is this based upon anything more than mere conjecture? Would you not have said three weeks ago that Mr. Hayes was not the man to present such a program? It has been said that Mr. Hayes has suddenly transformed himself into a civil service reformer for the sake of effect, and in order to secure the votes of the independents. But he has expressed the same views of reform in the canal service, and even to some extent with the same words, in speeches and inaugural addresses delivered years ago. This may have escaped you, even as it did me, but it is nevertheless true. No one, not even yourself, doubts that Mr. Hayes is a thoroughly honorable man, who honestly intends to practice what he preaches. He has shown that the substance of civil service reform is completely clear to his mind, but you deny him the courage and the energy which are necessary in order successfully to meet strong opposing influences. Moral courage in one thing implies moral courage in others. Have you considered, perhaps, how much moral courage must be inferred of a candidate for the Presidency who opposes the most powerful official influences of his party by such a program? He stands at the beginning of the campaign in which the policy of the candidate would dictate to him necessity of keeping favor with all strong influences of party, especially those already organized. Yet this candidate issues a manifesto which, in its comprehensive and sharply-defined requirements, is in itself the severest criticism of the existing misrule. Is this want of courage? This candidate says to the Members of Congress that in case of his election they must expect from him no concessions of patronage; to the officials, that no party services will be desired from them; to the politicians, that electioneering work will no longer be valid as claim to an office; to the President who has been twice chosen, and was “willing” for a third term, that whoever would undertake such reforms must deny himself the ambition of a second term. The man who in the critical period before election has sufficient courage and fidelity to his convictions to issue such a manifesto, will also have the courage after election to resist whatever hostile influences may surround him.
With these influences with which Mr. Hayes will have to battle I am well acquainted; probably few know them better. I undervalue their force by no means, but in this relation another element must be considered. In the last few years a serious movement in favor of a thorough reform in the civil service has taken place within the Republican party; this movement has been fruitless. Why? Hardly so much because the politicians who go for spoils in Congress have not been willing to give up their patronage and the party leaders their “machine,” but especially because the President, who is called upon to play the leading part in this reform, never properly knew what civil service reform meant; and since his personal friends and associates, as well as other interests, lay so much nearer to his heart, was glad to conceal himself behind the opposition in Congress in order to defeat the reform. I have always been convinced that if the President had been sincere the opposition might have been overcome, and the reform have been carried out within the entire scope of the Executive power. If he had done so much, Congress, under the pressure of a public opinion invoked by the President, would finally have accommodated itself to legislative measures in the same direction. The better wing of the party would therein have actively seconded the President, and Mr. Hayes in his struggle for the fulfilment of his program, would have found a powerful support in the same element; for this element will be particularly effective, when it finds itself naturally advocated in the first Executive officer. I have no recollection of any similar effort on the Democratic side, with the exception of a single speech of Senator Gordon on the revenue service, and a letter of Mr. Clarkson Potter, which however, contained propositions of very dubious value. What is understood as civil service reform in the Democratic camp has been shown by the Democratic majority of the present House of Representatives, which, without provoking an expression of dissatisfaction from a single one of its members, simply replaced all Republican officials without distinction by Democratic ones. You know as well as I do what scandals arose from this change. People may say that this was the usage of party. True; but such a usage of party must cease before civil service reform can begin. I am sure that I do not venture too far when I assert that you equally with myself await nothing else from a Democratic Administration than a universal expulsion of all Republican officials, good as well as bad, and the appointment of Democrats in the manner of a “new deal,” according to the traditional rule of the system of spoils. You know also, just as well as I, that even now a hundred thousand Democratic patriots stand ready to hurl themselves upon the long-desired booty. It does not trouble me particularly if this or that postmaster or collector is a Democrat or a Republican, but it must be clear to every one that such a procedure only makes permanent the system of spoils, and keeps open the most prolific source of corruption.
Now, what do you look for in this particular from Mr. Tilden? Will he oppose this great and covetous assault upon the booty, which is coming not only from the North, but more especially from the South, and which will surpass everything which up to this time our history can point to in this line? Will he brave it, and at the cost of his personal popularity in his own party send back home the officeseekers that he may retain in office good men and remove only bad ones? Allow me to tell you, sir, that you do not believe this. The carrying out of such a reform, more than any other political task, requires, first of all, an unselfish and undeviating devotion to purpose, that which is called “singleness of purpose,” a freedom from demagogic bias and from the grasping after popularity, a contempt for all wirepulling and political machine management. Is it your opinion that Mr. Tilden corresponds to this picture? As for myself, it is known to you that I never, like certain other independents, placed the name of Tilden beside that of Bristow that I might recommend the candidacy of the former in case the latter should not be nominated. While I acknowledge the excellence of some of Mr. Tilden's actions, I, notwithstanding, could never, even in the most favorable moments, feel quite easy and comfortable in respect to the reform mission of a man who had grown old in the peculiar school of New York politicians, and who had developed himself into a most perfect master of the political machine before he began his reform work. And I could not refuse to listen to the opinion of other persons whose fairness I could not doubt, and who had known Mr. Tilden longer and better than I — shall I say whose opinion in the matter was of especial weight with me? It was your own. This would seem like an unbecoming allusion to private conversation if you had not yourself given up to public possession your judgment of Mr. Tilden. Whoever read your paper last winter and spring had the opportunity of seeing Mr. Tilden, when occasion offered, very forcibly unmasked as “a demagogue and a grasper after popularity,” as a man unworthy of confidence, and an unsuitable candidate for the Presidency. You even found fault with that part of his annual message which had reference to the financial question, as a “suspicious step backward,” adopted as a means of opening a bargain with Western inflationists in the National Convention for the advancement of private aims. You strongly suspected even the business honesty of Mr. Tilden, for you found so unsubstantial his published defense of the complaints of embezzlement of large sums in railroad bonds that you felt obliged to express your doubts about it in the Staats-Zeitung. To be just to you I ought to add that your opinions of Mr. Tilden spoken in private agreed perfectly with those which you expressed in public, and both were unquestionably correct. Such was your judgment in the matter, and you will yourself find rather laughable, after all this, your complaint that “I am trampling my convictions under foot,” because I prefer to Mr. Tilden as a reform candidate another man who is “not a demagogue and popularity-seeker,” and whose motives and character are universally recognized as elevated high above all suspicion.
Now you will allow that, in accordance with your own openly expressed opinions, Mr. Tilden is not the man of fidelity to conviction and unselfish devotion who, as President, will surely turn aside the assault upon the spoils if any danger to the party peace or to his personal popularity is thereby incurred. Perhaps in his letter of acceptance he will make the same promises, but out of respect for your own estimate of Mr. Tilden, you must not be surprised if I place greater reliance in those of Mr. Hayes.
Just as little would Mr. Tilden be urged to a systematic reform of the civil service, through the influence of a strong element in the Democratic party, for such an element has never hitherto at least existed there. Among even the best on the Democratic side, the word “reform” has meant only the prosecution and dismissal of dishonest officeholders, and in case of a Democratic victory it will doubtless stop with the substitution of a new class of officeholders for the old class of officeholders, especially since, in that way, the claims of the victors upon the spoils can be satisfied. The retention of the spoils system, however, leaves undisturbed the most productive source of corruption. I am, therefore, quite of the same opinion as The Nation, a journal which has brought itself into prominence through the acutest and most unpartisan reviews of public matters. The Nation says:
After all which we learn of Mr. Hayes, he is a man who will hold to what he says. We do not conceal from ourselves the possibility that he may underrate the difficulties of his position. But as things stand, we must trust somebody, and we are forced to the conclusion that Mr. Hayes rather than Mr. Tilden is the man to walk in the path which to the reformers seems the right one.
That is also my conviction. I shall not, in spite of all the clamor, trample it under foot.
Some persons have found a cheap amusement in holding up before those men who took part in the May Conference in New York, and are now supporting Mr. Hayes, the address issued by the Conference, and pointing out the inconsistency of their action. Let us look at this matter more closely. The men who arranged the Conference and carried it through had for their first object a true civil service reform and a sound position on the financial question. They had all sorts of candidates in mind, but their candidates represented certain principles, and were not pressed simply on their own account. They wanted to promote the nomination of proper men in order to give their prime object the greatest possible push forward; but they had no notion of swearing unqualified fidelity to such men, whether or no their candidacy, by its attending conditions, made doubtful the attainment of the great end in view. Whoever thinks that the Conference was devoted to the service of particular persons has entirely mistaken its spirit. Had any one there asked the question: “Shall we support a candidate on a platform which, as a compromise with the inflationists, calls for the repeal of the resumption act, and requires the nomination of a Vice-President who will represent the soft-money party?” what would you have answered then? Your answer would have been a strong “Yes”; mine, and that, I believe, of the whole assembly, would have been a distinct “No!” This case is now presented to us, and I should be trampling on my honest convictions were I now to say “Yes.”
Had any one asked us the further question: “Shall a candidate be nominated who is not now numbered among the desirable ones, but who, being known as a thoroughly honorable man, takes a lofty view of his nomination and proposes to mark out for himself a program above the party platforms, which not only is satisfactory on the financial question but also seizes corruption in its very stronghold — the spoils system, — throws down the gauntlet to the political machine managers, robs the Congressman of his patronage and, by decisive measures of reform, puts an end to the prevailing abuses; and who then, unembarrassed by his following, overrides, by the force of his own will, the strongest partisan influences that can be brought to bear upon him — can we support such a candidate?” I do not believe that the Conference would have said, “No”; I doubt, indeed, whether you would have said so yourself. It is true that neither the one nor the other exigency was foreseen when the address of the Conference was drawn up; but both now present themselves, and we are compelled to choose between them. Shall we signers of the address now argue, like little children, that because the present state of things was not contemplated in the address, therefore it does not exist for us? Shall we not act the more consistent part by carrying out the spirit of the Conference, instead of shutting our eyes to the altered circumstances and following a simple name? Faithfulness to a higher duty is the true consistency which marks the man of convictions. It is better to be thus consistent in spirit than merely to appear consistent in externals.
It is true, affairs have not shaped themselves as I would have had them, and your desires are quite as poorly gratified. Of my relations to the old parties I make no secret. I regard them exactly as I used to, and I take nothing back of what I have said as well of the one as of the other. Now, as formerly, I believe that the sweeping away of the old party management, with its organized self-seeking, and the rebuilding upon the foundation of the present order of things, would be a great blessing to our political life. My independent standpoint remains the same. Neither do I agree with you when you point out that the independent movements of the past years have been without result. Who that has studied history, even with a partial understanding, does not know that great purposes have been seldom accomplished in the way which at the outset seemed the shortest and the safest? Those who would accomplish good should not suffer themselves to be discouraged, even though their patience and endurance are sometimes by temporary failures put to a hard test. The independent movements, it is true, have not succeeded in establishing on the foundations of the old parties new and better ones, but they have not remained without influence upon the old ones. On both sides progress has been made and new opportunities have arisen, and it must be our endeavor with our best powers to hold them fast and develop them further. We must thoughtfully inquire upon which side the most can be won for our good purposes, and the least endangered and lost.
You have said of me to my credit in the Staats-Zeitung that I have done much to awaken the conscience of the people. That has been my intention, and that is my intention to-day. Whatever words the excitement of the moment may have put in your mouth, you cannot believe in earnest that I would lightly throw away the fruit of long years of labor and strife, and he who attributes to me motives of self-interest has but little knowledge of me. What I am now striving for is to guard the spirit which has been awakened from entering upon a course in which, as I believe, it is in the greatest danger of wearing itself out in a mere exchange of officeholders, and of thereby satisfying itself without winning, through thorough and systematic civil service reform, deep-reaching and permanent results.
I repeat, one branch of reform — the cleansing of the government service from those officers who have disgraced it — seems to me in any event secured.
The question is whether or not we shall, before the general zeal for reform dies away, through an abolition of the spoils system and the permanent establishment of a sensible civil service, win the other branch of reform, which is of still greater importance for the future of our political life. After no hasty resolve, but after a calm and earnest consideration of all the circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that this end will be best attained by the election of Mr. Hayes, and in this conviction I am willing to subject myself to all suspicions and assaults. That there are in the Republican party influential persons who, in the event of Mr. Hayes's election, will strive to hinder the carrying out of his reform program, and to make use of him for other purposes, I know as well as you do. But I believe that these persons will find that they have mistaken their man. I have full confidence that the future will furnish the proof.
It is scarcely necessary for me to speak at length of other reasons which make a triumph of the Democratic party undesirable. I refer, among other things, to the strength which it would give to the ultramontane element, and to the false hopes which it would arouse in the lawless members of Southern communities, giving a fresh impulse to the commission of those excesses which make us shudder and for which the better part of our Southern people have as great a horror as we. I have frequently expressed my opinion on this point, and according to an observation, which I first saw in the Staats-Zeitung not long ago, you agree with me that a liberal, just, Republican government, in view of the moral effect of its identification with the results of the war, is, for the peace and welfare of the South, far preferable to a Democratic government. I have therefore never intended, notwithstanding my separation from the Republican party, to unite myself to the Democratic party.
One would, it is true, have had to reckon a good deal into the bargain, if one had been obliged to regard this as a last resort in bringing to an end the all-destroying government system which we designate by the name of Grantism. This, however, as I have shown, can now be accomplished in a better way. In other respects, I believe that the peculiar elements of which the Democratic party is composed, however good some of them individually may be, are not capable of bringing about an enduring moral reform of the Government.
You have frequently, during some time past, felt it necessary to inform the readers of the Staats-Zeitung that I, owing to my position in this campaign, have lost the confidence of many of my friends. If that were the case, I should, as I have often done, console myself with the thought that an honest effort for the public good never loses for any length of time the confidence of patriotic citizens. While I have been pursuing the path of honest conviction, I have been obliged to accustom myself to bear to-day the blame of those who yesterday praised me, and who will acknowledge me again to-morrow. In the present case I feel myself perfectly sure of the latter.
I will hazard a prophecy as to what the future has in store for us. I should not dare to promise the people an ideal political situation if Mr. Hayes be elected; but as regards the three points which are mentioned in this letter and which the address of the May Conference touched upon, the following appear to me as sure as anything one can ever count upon in the future: (1) The application of the whole Constitutional power of the Executive to secure a prompt resumption of specie payments, and apparently a supporting majority in Congress. (2) A weeding out of bad officers, and a consequent carrying through of his program of civil service reform on the part of the President, as far as his Constitutional powers will permit him; the employment in the public service of not one more party agent; the abolition of the spoils system; opposition to these reforms on the part of the spoils politicians in Congress; the overthrow of this opposition at the next Congressional elections. (3) An intelligent execution of the laws, joined with a just, conciliatory and honorable policy toward the people of the South.
In the event of a Democratic victory: (1) A soft-money majority in the House of Representatives; efforts on the part of the President in behalf of a resumption of specie payments, which are ruined by the majority in the House of Representatives; a continuance of our uncertain financial position for an indefinite length of time; in case of the succession of Mr. Hendricks to the Presidency, universal confusion, and a revival of the inflationists plans. (2) The weeding out of the bad officers, but also of the good ones; a tremendous, irresistible rush of officeseekers from South and North to divide the booty; a substantial continuance of the spoils system and the civil service as party machinery and all the demoralization which would flow from that; sundry efforts in the right direction, borne down by the pressure of partisan interests from all sides. (3) The rousing of false hopes among the lawless element in the South by their party victory, and the increase of terrible excesses and reactionary efforts, in spite of the desire of the Government and of the better part of the Southern people to suppress such disorders.
This is my view of what would result from the triumph of the one or the other party. You may hold a different view; time will tell which of us is right. May the sequel not prove injurious to the public weal.