Page images
PDF
EPUB

tain to receive the applause of a few emotional people who do not think correctly, and the one fact about him that can be instantly asserted as true beyond peradventure is that, if he is a serious personage at all, he is deliberately lying, while it is only less certain that he will be guilty of base and dishonorable compromise when the opportunity arises. “Compromise" is so often used in a bad sense that it is difficult to remember that properly it merely describes the process of reaching an agreement. Naturally there are certain subjects on which no man can compromise. For instance, there must be no compromise under any circumstances with official corruption, and of course no man should hesitate to say as much. Again, an honest politician is entirely justified in promising on the stump that he will make no compromise on any question of right and wrong. This promise he can and ought to make good. But when questions of policy arise-and most questions, from the tariff to municipal ownership of public utilities and the franchise tax, are primarily questions of policy—he will have to come to some kind of working agreement with his fellows, and if he says that he will not, he either deliberately utters what he knows to be false, or else he ensures for himself the humiliation of being forced to break his word. No decent politician need compromise in any way save as Washington and Lincoln did. He need not go nearly as far as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jackson went; but some distance he must go if he expects to accomplish anything.

Again, take the case of those who promise an impossible good to the community as a whole if a given course of legislation is adopted. The man who makes such a promise may be a well-meaning but unbalanced enthusiast, or he may be merely a designing demagogue. In either case the people who listen to and believe him are not to be excused, though they may be pitied. Softness of heart is an admirable quality, but when it extends its area until it also becomes softness of head, its results are anything but admirable. It is a good thing to combine a warm heart with a cool head. People really fit for self-government will not be misled by overeffusiveness in promise, and, on the other hand, they will demand that every proper promise shall be made good.

Wise legislation and upright administration can undoubtedly work very great good to a community, and, above all, can give to each individual the chance to do the best work for himself. But ultimately the individual's own faculties must form the chief factor in working out his own salvation. In the last analysis it is the thrift, energy, self-mastery, and business intelligence of each man which have most to do with deciding whether he rises or falls. It is

easy enough to devise a scheme of government which shall absolutely nullify all these qualities and ensure failure to everybody, whether he deserves success or not. But the best scheme of government can do little more than provide against injustice, and then let the individual rise or fall on his own merits. Of course something can be done by the State acting in its collective capacity, and in certain instances such action may be necessary to remedy real wrong. Gross misconduct of individuals or corporations may make it necessary for the State or some of its subdivisions to assume the charge of what are called public utilities. But when all that can be done in this way has been done, when every individual has been saved so far as the State can save him from the tyranny of any other man or body of men, the individual's own qualities of body and mind, his own strength of heart and hand, will remain the determining conditions in his career. The people who trust to or exact promises that, if a certain political leader is followed or a certain public policy adopted, this great truth will cease to operate, are not merely leaning on a broken reed, but are working for their own undoing

So much for the men who by their demands for the impossible encourage the promise of the impossible, whether in the domain of economic legislation or of legislation which has for its object the promo

tion of morality. The other side is that no man should be held excusable if he does not perform what he promises, unless for the best and most sufficient reason. This should be especially true of every politician. It shows a thoroughly unhealthy state of mind when the public pardons with a laugh failure to keep a distinct pledge, on the ground that a politician can not be expected to confine himself to the truth when on the stump or the platform. A man should no more be excused for lying on the stump than for lying off the stump. Of course matters may so change that it may be impossible for him, or highly inadvisable for the country, that he should try to do what he in good faith said he was going to do. But the necessity for the change should be made very evident, and it should be well understood that such a case is the exception and not the rule. As a rule, and speaking with due regard to the exceptions, it should be taken as axiomatic that when a man in public life pledges himself to a certain course of action he shall as a matter of course do what he said he would do, and shall not be held to have acted honorably if he does otherwise.

All great fundamental truths are apt to sound rather trite, and yet in spite of their triteness they need to be reiterated over and over again. The visionary or the self-seeking knave who promises the golden impossible, and the credulous dupe who is taken in by such a promise, and who in clutching ať the impossible loses the chance of securing the real though lesser good, are as old as the political organizations of mankind. Throughout the history of the world the nations who have done best in self-government are those who have demanded from their public men only the promise of what can actually be done for righteousness and honesty, and who have sternly insisted that such promise must be kept in letter and in spirit.

So it is with the general question of obtaining good government. We can not trust the mere doctrinaire; we can not trust the mere closet reformer, nor yet his acrid brother who himself does nothing, but who rails at those who endure the heat and burden of the day. Yet we can trust still less those base beings who treat politics only as a game out of which to wrong a soiled livelihood, and in whose vocabulary the word "practical” has come to be a synonym for whatever is mean and corrupt. A man is worthless unless he has in him a lofty devotion to an ideal, and he is worthless also unless he strives to realize this ideal by practical methods. He must promise, both to himself and to others, only what he can perform; but what really can be performed he must promise, and such promise he must at all hazards make good.

The problems that confront us in this age are,

« PreviousContinue »