« PreviousContinue »
THE BEST AND THE GOOD
PUBLISHED IN THE "CHURCHMAN," MARCH 17, 1900
A MONG the people to whom we are all under a *» very real debt of obligation for the help they give to those seeking for good government at Albany is Bishop Doane. All of us who at the State capital have been painfully striving to wrest, often from adverse conditions, the best results obtainable, are strengthened and heartened in every way by the active interest the bishop takes in every good cause, the keen intelligence with which he sees "the instant need of things," and the sane and wholesome spirit, as remote from fanaticism as from cynicism, in which he approaches all public questions.
Quite unconsciously the bishop the other day gave an admirable summing up of his own attitude in quoting an extract from the "Life" of Archbishop Benson. In a letter wli archbishop wrote to
his chancellor in ^^kf> patronage
in the Church oi
commented, with a sneer, on the fact that "of course" New York would not pass a law prohibiting contributions by corporations. He was right in thinking that New York, while it retains rational civic habits, will not pass ridiculous legislation which can not be made effective, and which is merely intended to deceive during the campaign the voters least capable of thought. But there will not be the slightest need for such legislation if only the public spirit is sufficiently healthy, sufficiently removed alike from corruption and from demagogy, to see that each corporation receives its exact rights and nothing more; and this is exactly what is now being done in New York by men whom dishonest corporations dread a hundred times more than they dread the demagogic agitators who are a terror merely to honest corporations.
It is, of course, not enough that a public official should be honest. No amount of honesty will avail if he is not also brave and wise. The weakling and the coward can not be saved by honesty alone; but without honesty the brave and able man is merely a civic wild beast who should be hunted down by every lover of righteousness. No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community. When this truth is accepted as axiomatic in our politics, then, and not till then, shall we see such a moral uplifting of the people as will render, for instance, Tammany rule in New York, as Tammany rule now is, no more possible than it would be possible to revive the robber baronage of the Middle Ages.
Great is the danger to our country from the failure among our public men to live up to the eighth commandment, from the callousness in the public which permits such shortcomings. Yet it is not exaggeration to say that the danger is quite as great from those who year in and year out violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness against the honest man, and who thereby degrade him and elevate the dishonest man until they are both on the same level. The public is quite as much harmed in the one case as in the other, by the one set of wrong-doers as by the other. "Liar" is just as ugly a word as "thief," because it implies the presence of just as ugly a sin in one case as in the other. If a man lies under oath or procures the lie of another under oath, if he perjures himself or suborns perjury, he is guilty under the statute law. Under the higher law, under the great law of morality and righteousness, he is precisely as guilty if, instead of lying in a court, he lies in a newspaper or on the stump; and in all probability the evil effects of his conduct are infinitely more wide-spread and more pernicious. The difference between perjury and claimed, which it would be indecent to refuse, and which would make a considerable difference about our powers of dealing rightly with cases. Gain that platform, and it would be a footing for more ideal measures. I do not want the best to be any more the deadly enemy of the good. We climb through degrees of comparison."
This is really a description as excellent as it is epigrammatic of the attitude which must be maintained by every public man, by every leader and guide of public thought, who hopes to accomplish work of real worth to the community. It is a melancholy fact that many of the worst laws put upon the statute-books have been put there with the best of intentions by thoroughly well-meaning people. Mere desire to do right can no more by itself make a good statesman than it can make a good general. Of course it is entirely unnecessary to say that nothing atones for the lack of this desire to do right. Exactly as the brilliant military ability of an Arnold merely makes his treason the more abhorrent, so our statesmanship can not be put upon the proper plane of purity and ability until the condemnation visited upon a traitor like Arnold is visited with no less severity upon the statesman who betrays the people by corruption. The one is as great an offence as the other. Military power is at an end when the honor of the soldier can no longer be trusted; and,