Banquet to the Honorable Carl Schurz/Speech of the Honorable Charles Francis Adams


Gentlemen: We in America—in that respect not very different, I suppose, from other progressive nations—have always with us some burning issue—the question of the day, and as such so absorbing in interest as to throw all other questions out of the field of discussion; for the time being it is, or seems, all-important. Of several questions of this sort we will hear more or less to-night; as also of Mr. Schurz's connection with them. Even if the programme in your hands did not name them, these issues would at once suggest themselves. There was the Slavery debate, which filled men's minds and kept busy their tongues, through twenty years; then came the Civil War; then Reconstruction; then Fiat Money; then Civil Service Reform; then Bimetalism; and now, at last, what some call “Imperialism,” and others know only as “Expansion.” In the discussion of each of these issues Mr. Schurz has been prominent, and I should be at a loss to decide which I thought he had discussed most effectively; and yet it is not with any one of these issues, or with all of them together, that he, this evening, is most closely associated in my mind. His closest association, as I now think of him, is with another American political problem—a problem I have not mentioned, but one always with us, and, to my mind, more important, I will add more far reaching in its consequences, than, with the single exception of Slavery, all the other issues I have recalled put together. I refer to the problem of so readjusting and arranging our political machinery as to enable the people of the country, whether in Nation, State or City, not only to put in public life, but to keep in public life, those whom nature and experience have most highly qualified to do good service there. As to the deficiency in this respect of our present machinery, I regard Mr. Schurz as an object lesson, no less eloquent than unanswerable.

On one point, at least, we are all agreed. In a government of the people, whether you call it parliamentary or constitutional—national, state or municipal—that machinery is best which brings most surely to the discussion and conduct of public affairs, and most steadily keeps there, whatever the community has in it that is best, of training, of knowledge and of character. Now, tested by this standard, let us look at the actual working of our existing machinery in the light of our own experience, and that of Mr. Schurz. Having, by general agreement, put himself in the front rank of those the country had best qualified for public discussion, Mr. Schurz was, thirty years ago, and by mere political chance, elected to the Senate. He was there a single term only. What he accomplished, and the position he won, in that single term, I need not stop to dilate upon. Our being here is a recognition of it, though hard upon five-and-twenty years have since passed away. For myself, however, I will say that, though Mr. Schurz represented Missouri and I lived in Massachusetts, I felt myself more completely, more, ideally, I might add, represented in the Senate between the 4th of March, 1869, and the 4th of March, 1875, than I ever was before, or since have been. [Applause.] I to-day regard Mr. Schurz as incomparably the best equipped man in the country, of whom I have any personal knowledge, for effective and brilliant parliamentary life—I mean parliamentary life of the highest order. I, indeed, believe that could Mr. Schurz have been kept continuously in the Senate from 1869 to this day, as public men are kept in the House of Commons or the Reichstag, with experience thus added to aptitude, and the whole confirmed by that weight which comes only from seniority, our parliamentary annals would have contained another record not less memorable than those it accounts best; and, moreover, the influence exercised by him on the course of public events would have been as evident as it was beneficial. [Applause.] In this, probably, all here agree with me; and yet, neither singly nor acting in concert, could we at any time through all those years have given effect to our wishes. The political machinery presented obstacles not to be overcome. Tied hard and fast by law and tradition, the representative could not seek the constituency, nor the constituency go out to find the representative. It would not have been so in Great Britain; nor in France; nor in Germany. In America it was so then; it is so now; it bids fair long so to continue.

The result is that I am, as you are, nominally represented, it is true; but how? and by whom? I do not even know who my representative in Congress is. I must have voted for him; for at that election I voted the Republican ticket, and the Republican candidate was elected; but to save myself from State's prison I could not tell you here to-night what the name of the candidate was, nor had I ever heard of him before. And in this connection two questions at once suggest themselves. How many others here are in the same case? Could one-half of those present give the names of their representatives in Congress? Or again, what obstacle would have sufficed to keep you from the polls, had an intelligent system of representation, no matter where he lived or where, you lived, enabled you at the last election to cast a vote which would have been counted in favor of Mr. Schurz? Under such a system there would have been no day during the last thirty years when he would have had to seek a constituency.

So it goes; and, as I think, not greatly to our credit. In this respect we are distinctly behind all other parliamentary nations, infinitely behind what we should be. We are wedded to very poor idols—provincialism, and the spirit of locality. The persons we elect to our parliamentary bodies—from the city councils to the members of Congress—represent territorial limits, within which they themselves reside; they do not, represent intelligent, self-constituted constituencies. And taking advantage of this occasion, I want further to call attention to the fact that this crude, clumsy, antiquated, and peculiarly American system of representation is at the root of that one of our political problems which, more than any or all others, is at once the most difficult of solution, and the source of our greatest disquiet. Here, in Greater New-York, I need scarcely say I refer to the rule of large cities through a government republican in form. In those cities the legislative branch, as we all know—whether we live in Boston, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or here—has broken down—hopelessly, confessedly broken down. It has broken down, too—fallen into utter discredit—from the same defect in machinery which makes it impossible for Mr. Schurz to appeal to us as a constituency, or for us to offer ourselves as a constituency to Mr. Schurz. We are disfranchised by ward lines in our cities, as by district lines in the nation. The representative cannot seek the constituency; neither can the constituency go outside of its territorial limits to look for its representative. Custom supplements law to make complete the bottling, and it is the weakest link in the chain which breaks first.

Not long ago, in the course of a dinner-table discussion, carried on almost within the sound of my voice at this moment, I heard the question suddenly asked why, here in New-York, politics tended more and more to the machine, and the type of machine-men, as contra-distinguished from statesmen. Formerly the Empire State developed public characters of a high order—Clintons, Maroys, Wrights, Sewards—whereas now only men of quite another stamp are forthcoming. [Laughter.] The soil, it was said, is the same; why this difference in its fruit? In the first place, I submit, the soil is not the same. A community living in larger and larger proportion in city slums is not the same as a community in greatest part agricultural; and, in the next place, the methods of fruit culture have changed. From another soil and another culture, a different fruit will result; very possibly a poisonous fruit, from a franker vegetation. Such has unquestionably been the case. What is the remedy?

I am no pessimist. I more than believe—I know—I know it from personal experience and daily observation; there is just as much ability and public spirit, there is more education and self-sacrificing devotion—altruism, they call it—at the service of the, community to-day than ever heretofore. The trouble is with the political machinery, which, outgrown and cumbersome, now tends to suppress instead of calling forth the qualities I have referred to. The reason is plain. As the community has grown in wealth, and become more complex and exacting, the public expenditure has, in volume, immensely increased, and is still increasing. Thousands once are millions now. Of course—how could it be otherwise?—where the carrion is, there will the vultures be gathered. It is the familiar, ancient tale of wrong; a simple, clumsy machinery—once adequate to its purpose, has been gradually metamorphosed into the perfect and powerful political machine, with a “boss” at the lever. It holds us in its grasp.

It is useless to deplore; it is not worth while to scold. The situation is plain; the remedy, though not difficult to devise, is, I fear, remote. The carving up of a region, nation, state or county—into geographical divisions containing each, approximately, the same population is, from its simplicity, an attractive way for the average legislator to dispose of a political problem; while, on the other hand, it is unquestionably a puzzling task to devise a really practical plan for breaking down the prescriptive barriers in the way of any intelligent crystallization of votes irrespective of vicinage; but, just so long as the present. district-resident representation lasts just so long will we be disfranchised in all but the name, and men like Mr. Schurz, whether in the nation or in the city, be excluded from continuous public life. No public man of independent character and lofty public motives ever was, or will be, in perpetual harmony with the political majority of the neighborhood in which he lives. So long as, in America, the rule holds that he must be, American public life will be handicapped. From this cause it has suffered; it is now suffering greatly; it will continue more and more to suffer; for, no matter how rich it is in other respects, no nation can afford to be wasteful of experience, capacity and character in its public men.

It has of late been somewhat boastfully claimed that the American people have never yet failed to solve any problem with which they have been called upon seriously to grapple. That, as an abstract proposition, I do not care to discuss; but, nevertheless, to me at least, this occasion suggests the problem I stated when I began to address you—a problem still unsolved, which might well be commended to the earnest attention of that same American people, of whom we are a part. Our presence here proves—nothing could more conclusively prove it—the existence of a constituency, and a constituency not below the average as respects intelligence, means or character. Mr. Schurz—of that, too, our being here gives proof—should have been—should now be our representative. What sort of political machinery, I then ask, is that which, for a quarter of a century, has kept that representative and this constituency apart? And, too, has kept them so thoroughly apart that now, when the representative has touched on the term of years allotted man, the constituency gather spontaneously about him to express appreciation of lofty character and the sense of great abilities, while those composing it reflect, as I certainly do, with unfeigned regret, that they were never able to come together, and now may not hope to come together, holding that relation to Carl Schurz which Bristol once held to Edmund Burke, and which, later, Middlesex held to Fox, and Midlothian to Gladstone.