Civil Government in the United States considered, with some reference to its Origins. By John Fiske. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Pp. xxx + 360.
If not the most important book that Mr. Fiske has written, this is, without doubt, one of the most useful. The plan of it is good, the spirit of it is good, the execution of it is good. Lucid arrangement seems to come naturally to Mr. Fiske, and to lucidity of arrangement he is always able to add extreme felicity of expression. With this book accessible to him, no American, young or old, can have any excuse for remaining ignorant of the leading facts in connection either with the political development or the existing political structure of his native country. Here we have the story told in the simplest language, and in a style which is not too vivacious to be serious nor too serious to be vivacious. Moreover, by a happy art in selection, Mr. Fiske has told us just what it is most important to understand and remember. His task is one of narrative and exposition; and he is not, therefore, called upon to any great extent for the expression of his individual opinions. Here and there, however, he has found occasion for a judicious comment or a penetrating criticism, with the result of making us feel regret that his limits did not permit more extended remarks of this character.
In the first chapter he deals with government as the taxing power, and broadly states that the taking of taxes for a wrong purpose, as by a political party in order to strengthen its hold on power, is robbery. In his second he sketches the rise of the township, and shows the connection existing between this primary political unit and the church congregation. The important functions exercised by the township authorities are fully described, and justice is done to the politically educative effect of township institutions. Very instructive parallels are drawn between the institutions of the parent state and those established on American soil. Except the development of our written Constitution, every bit of civil government described in his pages came to America, says Mr. Fiske, "directly from England, and not a bit of it from any other country unless by being first filtered through England." Much detailed information is given as to the local circumstances which helped to mold the development of counties and States in different parts of the country. Chapter V, on "The City," is most important. Here, again, our author takes us to the old land, and shows us the development of the Roman camp or military settlement into a burg, and the gradual growth in the burg of principles and traditions of liberty, though in many of them oligarchical tendencies became manifest in course of time, giving rise to the "rotten boroughs" which, on the political side, were dealt with by the Reform Act of 1832, and, on the civic side, by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. It was the constitution of the English city or borough that determined the constitution of the first city governments established in this country; and here, too, a distinct tendency toward oligarchy, with its attendant evils, began to make itself felt. The city government, instead of being freely elected by the people, was, after the pattern of the English borough, a self-perpetuating corporation with a very limited responsibility to the citizens in general. In course of time this system was abolished; freedom of election for all city officers was established; and then, unfortunately, other evils set in, evils which perhaps reached their height in this city some twenty years ago. The tendency of late years in our cities, as Mr. Fiske points out, has been to concentrate larger powers in the hands of the mayor, and to fasten on him a proportionately heavy responsibility. "A hundred years ago," the author remarks, "our legislators and Constitution—makers were much afraid of what was called the 'one-man power.'" To-day we are getting to be more afraid of the myriad-headed tyrant, with its manager, "the ring." Fifty years ago to have had so few elective officers as, for example, there are in the neighboring city of Brooklyn, and so many nominated by one man, would, we are told, "have greatly shocked all good Americans." To-day we feel that we are safer in the hands of one honest man of good judgment, who knows that the eyes of all the citizens are fixed on him, than in those of any body of elected officers, each with only a partial and more or less doubtful responsibility. Mr. Fiske