Statement of the Reform Conference
Fellow-Citizens: — A conference of citizens assembled in New York, sincerely desiring to serve the best interests of the American people, beg leave to submit to your candid consideration the following appeal:
A National election is approaching under circumstances of peculiar significance. Never before in our history has the public mind been so profoundly agitated by an apprehension of the dangers arising from the prevalence of corrupt tendencies and practices in our political life, and never has there been greater reason for it. We will not display here in detail the distressing catalogue of the disclosures which for several years have followed one another in rapid succession, and seem to have left scarcely a single sphere of our political life untouched. The records of courts, of State legislatures and of the National Congress speak with terrible plainness, and still they are adding to the scandalous exhibition. While such a state of things would under any circumstances appear most deplorable, it is peculiarly so at the present moment. We are about to celebrate the one hundredth birthday of our National existence. We have invited the nations of the earth on this great anniversary to visit our land and to witness the evidences of our material progress, as well as the working and effects of that republican government which a century ago our Fathers founded. Thus the most inspiring memories of our past history are rising up before us in a new glow of life, forcing upon us the comparison of what this Republic once was, what it was intended to be and what it now is; and upon this we have challenged the judgment of civilized mankind conjointly with our own. There is much of which every American citizen has just reason to be proud; and energy and thrift, a power of thought and action, a progressive spirit, which in magnificence of result have outstripped all precedent and anticipation; a history abounding in illustrations of heroic patriotism, fortitude and wisdom; a greater freedom from foreign wars and revolutionary changes of government than most other nations can boast of; our Republic, but a century old, and just issued from the only great civil conflict we have had to deplore, so strong in resources and organization that it stands in the foremost rank of the great Powers of the earth; and yet, with all these splendid results on record, it cannot be denied that at no period during the century now behind us the American people have been less satisfied with themselves; and that the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in so many respects to all Americans a day of sincerest pride and rejoicing, is felt to be in other respects not without self-reproach and humiliation. Of this the corruption revealed in our political life is the cause.
To the honor of the American people be it said, every patriotic citizen feels the burning shame of the spectacle presented in this centennial year; there the mementoes and monuments of the virtues of the past, and here the shocking evidence of the demoralization and corruption of the present; there the glowing eulogies pronounced on the wisdom and purity of the Fathers, and here in mocking contrast the verdict of courts and the records of legislative bodies illustrating the political morals of to-day; and this before all mankind solemnly summoned as a witness to the exhibition and a guest to the feast. Never was there cause for keener mortification, and keenly does it strike every patriotic heart. How can we avert such dangers and wipe off such shame? By proving that, although the government machinery has become corrupt, the great body of the people are sound and strong at the core and that they are honestly determined to reform the abuses of our political life, and to overthrow at any cost the agencies of evil that stand in the way. Only such an effort, well directed and sternly persevered in until success is assured, will save the good name of the Nation, prevent the prevailing disease from becoming fatal and restore to its old strength the faith of our own people in their institutions.
At the impending National election various questions of great importance will be submitted to our judgment. The settlements of the civil war as Constitutionally fixed must be conscientiously maintained, and at the same time the Government strengthened in general confidence by the strict observance of Constitutional principles, and the old brotherhood of the people revived by a policy of mutual justice and conciliation.
Our solemn and often repeated pledge faithfully to discharge all National obligations must be fulfilled, not only by the payment of the principal and interest of our bonded debt when due, but also the removal, not later than the time provided by existing law, of the curse of our redundant irredeemable paper currency, which not only impedes the return of true prosperity but has largely contributed to the existing demoralization.
These are grave questions, and there are more we might touch, were it our purpose to lay down a complete political platform. But grave as they are, still, in our present situation, we must, as American citizens, recognize it as our pressing duty to reëstablish the moral character of our Government and to elevate the tone of our political life. Honest government is the first condition of enduring National prosperity, power and freedom. Without the elementary virtues of political as well as social life decay will outstrip our progress. Our discussion and struggles about other great questions and principles will appear like a mockery and farce if we permit our public concerns to drift into that ruinous anarchy which corruption must necessarily bring in its train, because it destroys the confidence of the people in their self-government, the greatest evil that can befall a republic. It is a simple question of life or death. A corrupt monarchy may last by the rule of force; a corrupt republic cannot endure.
It is useless to console ourselves with the idea that the corruption amongst us must be ascribed solely to the immediate effects of the civil war, and will, without an effort at reform, soon pass away. There is another cause which is not transitory, but threatens to become permanent. It is that system which has made the offices of the Government the mere spoils of party victory; the system which distributes the places of trust and responsibility as the reward of party service and the bounty of favoritism; the system which appeals to the mean impulses of selfishness and greed as a controlling motive of political action; the system which degrades the civil service to the level of a mere party agency, and, treating the officer as the hired servant of the party and taxing him for party support stimulates corruption and places it under party protection; the system which brings the organization of parties under the control of their most selfishly interested, and therefore most active element — the place-holders and the place-hunters — thus tending to organize a standing army of political mercenaries to be paid out of the treasury of the Government, who by organized action endeavor to subjugate the will of the people to their ends through the cultivation of a tyrannical party spirit.
Every student of our political history knows that since the spoils system was inaugurated, corruption has steadily grown from year to year, and so long as this system lasts, with all its seductions and demoralizing tendencies, corruption will continue to grow in extent and power, for patriotism and true merit will more and more be crowded out of political life by unscrupulous selfishness. The war has only given a sudden stimulus to this tendency; but without the war it would have grown up and will not cease to grow as long as the hot-bed of corruption, the spoils system, lasts. The skill in corrupt practices acquired by one generation of spoilsmen will only be improved upon by the next. The result we know. We have already reaped so great a harvest of disaster and shame that, we repeat, it has now become the first duty of the American people to reëstablish the moral character of the Government by a thorough reform. What can we do toward this end in the impending National election?
In this respect, fellow-citizens, we consider it our duty to speak very plainly. Never were the cause of good government and the honor of the American name more immediately dependent on the character, ability and reputation of the men to be selected for the highest offices. In view of the grave circumstances at present surrounding us, we declare the country cannot now afford to have any man elected to the Presidency whose very name is not conclusive evidence of the most uncompromising determination of the American people to make this a pure Government once more.
Our duty in this respect is plain and imperious. It suffers no trifling or equivocation. The worn-out clap-traps of fair promises in party platforms will not satisfy it; neither will mere fine professions on the part of candidates; not mere words are needed, but acts; not mere platforms, but men.
We therefore declare, and call upon all good citizens to join us, that at the coming Presidential election we shall support no candidate who in public position ever countenanced corrupt practices or combinations, or impeded their exposure and punishment, or opposed necessary measures of reform.
We shall support no candidate who, while possessing official influence and power, has failed to use his opportunities in exposing and correcting abuses coming within the reach of his observation, but for personal reasons and party ends has permitted them to fester on; not striving to uncover and crush corruption, but for the party's sake ready to conceal it.
We shall support no candidate, however conspicuous his position or brilliant his ability, in whom the impulses of the party manager have shown themselves predominant over those of the reformer; for he will be inclined to continue that fundamental abuse, the employment of the Government service as a machinery for personal or party ends.
We shall support no candidate who, however favorably judged by his nearest friends, is not publicly known to possess those qualities of mind and character which the stern task of genuine reform requires; for the American people cannot now afford to risk the future of the Republic in experiments on merely supposed virtue or rumored ability to be trusted on the strength of private recommendations.
In one word, at present no candidate should be held entitled to the support of patriotic citizens of whom the questions may fairly be asked: "Is he really the man to carry through a thoroughgoing reform of the Government? Can he with certainty be depended upon to possess the moral courage and sturdy resolution to grapple with abuses which have acquired the strength of established custom, and to this end firmly to resist the pressure even of his party friends?" Whenever there is room for such a question, and doubt as to the answer, the candidate should be considered unfit for this emergency.
This is no time for so-called availability springing from distinction gained on fields of action foreign to the duties of government; nor for that far more dangerous sort of availability which consists in this, that the candidate be neither so bad as to repel good citizens, nor so good as to discourage the bad ones.
Passive virtue in the highest place has too often been known to permit the growth of active vice below. The man to be intrusted with the Presidency this year must have deserved not only the confidence of honest men, but also the fear and hatred of the thieves. He who manages to conciliate the thieves cannot be the candidate for honest men.
Every American citizen who has the future of the Republic and the National honor sincerely at heart should solemnly resolve that the country must have a President "whose name is already a watchword of reform; whose capacity and courage for the work are matters of record rather than of promise, who will restore the simplicity, independence and rectitude of the early Administrations, and whose life will be a guarantee of his fidelity and fitness"; a man at the mere sound of whose name even the most disheartened will take new courage, and all mankind will say: "The Americans are indeed in earnest to restore the ancient purity of their Government."
Fellow-citizens, the undersigned, in addressing you, are not animated by the ambition to form or lead a new political party. Most have long been and are warmly attached to their party associations. It would be most gratifying to us to see, by party action, candidates put forward whose character and record answer those requirements which present circumstances render imperative. We earnestly hope and trust it will be so. We shall gladly follow such a lead and make every effort in our power to render it successful. But while we are ready to accept any and every good result of party action, we affirm that the moral reform of our public concerns is infinitely superior in importance to the interests of any political party. Glad to promote that reform through party action, we shall insist upon it at all events, should party action fail. Experience teaches us that the habitual submission of good citizens to a choice of evils presented to them by party organizations is one of the most prolific causes of corruption in our politics. The acceptance by the people of the argument that one party may be bad and still be entitled to the support of good men, because the other party is still worse, will induce each to consider how bad it may safely be. It will strengthen in each the power of the most unscrupulous element and subject the will of the people to the subtle tyranny of organization wielded by those who live by politics. To break that tyranny by a stern refusal to submit to such a choice of evils is the first beginning in the reform of our political life. Without this all other steps will prove unavailing.
We shall sincerely rejoice to see the necessity of independent action avoided. We earnestly hope that the efforts to this end being made by the friends of reform within party lines will be crowned with success, and that the just expectations of the people may not be doomed to disappointment. Indeed, we are confident if all those of our fellow-citizens who in their hearts agree with what we have said will only take the courage openly to proclaim their conviction and purposes, such a manifestation alone would produce an effect sufficient to secure nominations and an election inaugurating a better order of things.
We therefore appeal to all good citizens who find their own sentiments expressed in this address (be they inside or outside of party lines) to organize in their respective districts, and communicate with the Executive Committee appointed at this meeting, so that efficient coöperation may become possible. Let no effort be spared in bringing the influence of a patriotic public opinion to bear upon those who in the customary way are soon to nominate the party candidates; and then, in any event, let us be ready to do what the best interests of the Republic demand.
Our generation has to open the second century of our National life, as the Fathers opened the first. Theirs was the work of independence, ours is the work of reformation. The one is as vital now as the other was then. Now, as then, every true American must have the courage to do his duty.
Carl Schurz, Missouri, Chairman.