The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Mayor Hewitt, November 5th, 1887
TO MAYOR HEWITT
Nov. 5, 1887.
Permit me to introduce myself to you as one of a large number of citizens who, without regard to your party affiliations, supported you when you were a candidate for the mayor's office. At the instance of some of them for whom I then spoke, I address you now.
In saying this I do not lay claim to extraordinary consideration. I mention it only in order to remind you of the fact that the ground upon which the independent citizens supported you was well understood. We believed that as mayor of this great city you would infuse an element of superior intelligence and honor into the conduct of our municipal affairs, and, by the force of your example as well as by the legitimate use of your influence, endeavor to emancipate them from the rule of that narrow-minded, selfish and not infrequently corrupt partisanship from which the community has in the past suffered so much injury and disgrace. You cannot fail to remember how you encouraged that belief.
No just man will deny that many of your acts have deserved and obtained the applause of your fellow-citizens. So much the more is it to be deplored that now you have taken a step which, in its evil effects, threatens to outweigh all the good you have done or may do during the rest of your official term; and here I express not only my own, but the opinions, as far as I know, of all those who supported you without being moved by partisan motives.
The contest for the district attorneyship has at this time assumed unusual importance—not on account of personal or party considerations, but because it involves great public interests. The corruption so long prevailing in our municipal affairs has seriously injured the welfare as well as the good name of this community. A vigorous prosecution of the thieves and betrayers of public trusts, of bribe-givers and bribe-takers, was felt to be the first step necessary if the public interest was to be protected and the disgrace wiped out. When at last that vigorous prosecution took place it was hailed by all good citizens as the breaking of a better day. Everybody knew that it was owing mainly to Mr. Martine, who controlled the operations of the district attorney's office, and to Mr. Nicoll, who worked up and conducted the trial of the boodle cases. This was so generally understood that when Mr. Martine desired a place on the bench, as was proper enough, Mr. Nicoll was almost universally looked upon as his natural successor. There was a general feeling that he had managed the prosecution not only with skill and untiring energy, but also with that firmness against adverse pressure, that fearlessness of the power of those he had to bring to justice and of their friends, which are especially indispensable under such circumstances. And since the district attorney's office appeared as the soul of the prosecutions, as the principal protector of the public interest and honor, Mr. Nicoll, who had done so well in the past, was regarded as especially trustworthy for the future, in fact, as the special representative of the vigor of the law.
That ordinary political hucksters who derive their sustenance from selfish combinations should have opposed him was not surprising. But nobody reckoned you among that class. You are a man of recognized ability and high social standing. You have the prestige of a distinguished public career, and, as the head of this great municipality, of important official position. Many a time you have given the people to understand that you regarded public office as a public trust. When you oppose what is generally looked upon as demanded by the public voice as well as the public interest, it must be expected that you have weighty reasons for it—reasons corresponding with your character and station.
You have given us those reasons in a letter addressed to the Harlem Democratic club, and pardon me for saying that to many of your friends they have been a painful surprise.
You say that originally you had been willing to do all you “could in a proper way to secure Mr. Nicoll's nomination”—thus admitting the propriety of it. Why, then, did you not do it? Because, some time in September last, Mr. Nicoll had told you that “he preferred to resume his private practice of the law.” My dear Mr. Hewitt, you and I are no novices in public life. When you tell me that such a casual remark about preferring private station must be taken as a conclusive reason against bringing that man forward for office, if he is otherwise fit and desirable, you will certainly not expect me to receive that statement without a smile. Have we not both heard it said many a time that not the man should seek the office, but the office the man? Do we not both remember many instances when public men were urged and finally prevailed upon to take office, much against their original desire? A prominent case of that kind is fresh in my memory; it is that of the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, when, after repeated declarations that he did not desire that office, he permitted himself to be nominated for the mayoralty. But you give up your argument in your own letter; for you say that Mr. Fellows wished to retire to his private practice just as much as Mr. Nicoll, but that “he was solicited to accept a nomination, which he neither expected nor desired.” So it appears that the wish to retire to private practice was conclusive against Mr. Nicoll, but not against Mr. Fellows, and that, in spite of such wish, the nomination could be urged upon Mr. Fellows, but not upon Mr. Nicoll. You must, therefore, pardon sensible men if they do not take your argument as serious.
But you give another reason. “In this condition of affairs,” you say, “the nomination of Mr. Nicoll was demanded by certain newspapers which are either not the organs of the Democratic party or are distinctly opposed to its principles.” Well, what of it? Do you mean to say that the advocacy of Mr. Nicoll by newspapers not the organs of the Democratic party would make him less efficient in the prosecution of evil-doers, a less valuable district attorney to the city of New York? I remember when Abram S. Hewitt was a candidate for mayor, newspapers “not the organs of the Democratic party” advocated his election. Did he repel them? Did he think it for himself a disqualification for the office?
Indeed, you say that one of the newspapers spoke in a dictatorial tone. What of that? Would that have diminished Mr. Nicoll's qualifications for the place? Would it have lessened the importance of the prosecutions by a man of his proven trustworthiness? Let me ask you, instead of indulging in feverish imaginings about “newspaper bosses” and “brooding Buddhas,” to look the facts calmly in the face. It was not one newspaper that at first expressed the demand for Mr. Nicoll's nomination. It was almost the whole press of this city; it was the Herald, the Sun, the World, the Times, the Tribune, the Staats-Zeitung, the Evening Post, the Commercial Advertiser, the Mail and Express, Harper's Weekly, the Independent and others. And why did these newspapers, in almost unbroken chorus, agree in that demand? Not because they wanted to start a popular current, but because they moved in it. They did not create public sentiment, but they simply obeyed it. They only gave voice and expression to a demand which embodied the best impulses of our people and did honor to the community—the demand for justice and good government. Will you make us believe that, as “self-respecting men,” you and your friends among the leaders of the Democratic party could not have yielded to that demand because among the newspapers expressing it there was one you did not like? Let us see where that kind of “self-respect” has carried you.
I know that we cannot expect our candidates for office to be perfect angels. I am not in favor of criticizing the private conduct of candidates for office, unless it is absolutely necessary. But it becomes absolutely necessary when that private conduct reveals faults of character which would render the candidate unfit for the office to which he aspires. Mr. Fellows is an eloquent man, and, I suppose, a pleasant companion. He may possess other estimable qualities; he may be good yet for many things in this world. But recent revelations have served to illustrate some of his weaknesses, which, in fact, have long been known, and which make him especially unfit for the duties of a public prosecutor. He stands self-confessed as having, after losing a considerable sum of money which he did not possess, in gambling, paid his gambling debt with a note, the payment of which he sought to avoid by pleading in court the law against gambling. He stands self-confessed as having solicited a pecuniary favor from William M. Tweed, the champion public robber and corruptionist of this land—and that immediately after he (Fellows) had left the employment of the prosecuting attorney of this county, and after Tweed's unexampled misdeeds had become clearly known to him.
In private life you would, as a “self-respecting” man, probably leave any one guilty of these things to the society of his boon companions, to the mercy of his creditors and, perhaps, to the attention of the police. As a “self-respecting” business man, who wishes to preserve the good repute of his firm, you would hardly make him your partner or manager, or recommend him to your neighbors for confidential employment. Can you, then, as a “self-respecting” public man, advise your fellow-citizens to intrust him with almost uncontrollable power over those interests which, at this moment, are to them the dearest—even the good name of the community? As a “self-respecting” mayor of New York, can you ask the people of the city to put the indictment of gamblers at the discretion of a gambler evading the payment of his debts, and the prosecution of bribe-givers and bribe-takers at the mercy of a man who did not blush, when just rising from the study of Tweed's crimes, to beg a pecuniary favor from him who in our history stands as the very embodiment of corruption? Would you thus intrust the honor of the community to one who has confessedly shown that his character lacks the first elements of the sense of honor required in the office of public prosecutor?
Since your “self-respect” would not let you recognize the moral sense of the community which favored Mr. Nicoll, I invite you to contemplate calmly the “self-respect” which you enjoy as the eulogist of the “simple Christian life” and the high character of Mr. Fellows.
And now, do you really think, as your letter seems to intimate, that unless the people elect to the district attorney's office a man who has been capable of trying to escape from his gambling debts under the cover of the very law against gambling, and of begging pecuniary accommodations from the most notorious public thief in the land, your party will be defeated in the Presidential election next year, and that, as you say, “this State will open the Treasury to jobbers and to schemes foreign to the purposes of our Government and to the best interests of our people”? Do not deceive yourself. If the Democratic party has been hurt by anything connected with this struggle about the district attorneyship, it is by the perverseness of some of its leaders, who rejected the man who most clearly represents at this juncture the cause of justice and good government, and by the nomination of a man whose success would make every rascal in the land rejoice. It is by the blind infatuation which has led these leaders to drag even the National Administration with them into the mire of a bad cause.
What malignant enemy of President Cleveland was it that induced Mr. Cooper to extort from him that most unfortunate letter intermeddling in New York City politics on the side of the typical “dead beat” as a candidate for an office which is the guardian of the public honor? If the President had had a true friend in your councils, that friend would have strained every nerve to confirm his disinclination to descend from the high dignity of his office; that friend would not have failed to remind him of 1882, when the meddling of the National Administration with New York State politics resulted in the most sweeping opposition victory on record; that friend would have struggled to the bitter end against the publication of the President's letter after the new revelations concerning Mr. Fellows's career, in ignorance of which, I have no doubt, that letter was written, and after learning which I trust he would wish it never had been written.
I shall say nothing in extenuation of the fact that the President permitted himself to be so misused. But certain it is that the bitterest enemies of the President and of the Democratic party could not have dealt them a more vicious blow. For more than thirty years I have been an attentive observer of political events, and never, never have I witnessed more wanton recklessness on the part of party leaders, sacrificing the interests and good name of a great municipality, the character of a National Administration, as well as the interests of their party and cause, to their blundering folly or their small selfishness.
No, sir; the injury you and your friends have done to your party and your cause by the nomination of such a man as Mr. Fellows would not be repaired, but it would be aggravated, by his election. “He serves his party best who serves his country best,” and surely the rank and file of your party can, under existing circumstances, do no better service to themselves and to their cause than by showing that, whatever the vagaries of some of their leaders, the masses at least are sound at heart and worthy of confidence.
To the last minute I shall not cease to hope that your true self-respect will reassert itself and draw you away from that side on which, as you well know, you can find to-day every thief, every corruptionist, every law-breaker in New York, including those who have run to Canada—for there is not one of them who does not pray for the election of Mr. Fellows; not one who does not stand in deadly fear of Mr. Nicoll.
But if we cannot be spared the incredible spectacle of the mayor of New York asking the people on the score of “self-respect” to put in the place of public prosecutor a person whose self-confessed and absolute moral unfitness would be an encouragement to the very class to be prosecuted, then, I trust, the citizens of New York will prove self-respecting enough to take care of their own honor by giving an overwhelming majority to a man whose character has stood the test of severest trial, who has made himself a terror to evil-doers, whose election will show that our people really demand honest government, and whom they can exhibit as their choice without shame.