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   Chapter 4 No.4

An American Politician By F. Marion Crawford Characters: 22702

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


All sorts and conditions of men and women elbowed and crowded each other under the dim gaslight at the three entrances to the Boston Music Hall. The snow was thick on the ground outside, and it had been thawing all the afternoon. The great booby sleighs slid and slipped and rocked through the wet stuff, the policemen vociferated, the horse-car drivers on Tremont Street rang their bells furiously, and a great crowd of pedestrians stumbled and tumbled about in the mud and slush and snow of the crossings, all bent on getting inside the Music Hall in time for the beginning of the lecture.

The affair was called a "lecture" in accordance with the time-honored custom of Boston, and unless it were termed an oration, it would be hard to find a better name for it. A "meeting" implies a number of orators, or at least a well-filled row of chairs upon the platform. A "lecture," on the other hand, does not convey to the ordinary mind the idea of a political speech, and critical persons with a taste for etymology say that the word means something which is read.

John Harrington had determined to speak in public on certain subjects connected with modern politics, and had caused the fact to be extensively made known. His name alone would have sufficed to draw a large audience, but the great attention he had attracted by his doings for some time past, and the severe criticisms lately made upon him by the local press, rendered the interest even greater than it would otherwise have been. Moreover, the lecture was free. Harrington was a poor man, as fortunes go in Boston, but it was his chiefest principle that a man had no right to be paid for speaking the truth, even though it might sometimes be just that people should pay something for hearing it. Accordingly the lecture was free, and at the appointed hour the house was full to overflowing.

In the front row of the first gallery sat old Miss Schenectady, and by her side was Josephine Thorn. A little colony of "Beacon Street" had collected there, and Pocock Vancouver was not far off. It is not often that Beacon Street goes to such lectures, but John was one of themselves, and had too many friends and enemies among them not to be certain of a large attendance.

Miss Schenectady was there, partly because she believed in John Harrington, and partly because Joe insisted upon going; and, generally speaking, what Joe insisted upon was done. The old lady did not understand why her niece was so very anxious to be present, but as the proposition fell in with her own desires, she made no objection. The fact was that Joe's interest in John had very greatly increased of late, and her curiosity to hear the man she met so often speak to a great audience was excited to its highest pitch. She fancied, too, from many things she had heard said, that a large proportion of his audience would be hostile to him, and that she would see him roused to his greatest strength and eloquence. She did not consider her impulse in the least, for though she felt a stronger interest in Harrington than she had ever before felt in any individual, it had not struck her that she was beginning to care overmuch for the sight of his face and the sound of his voice. She could not have believed she was beginning to love him; and if any secret voice had suggested to her conscience that it was so, she could have silenced it at once to her own satisfaction by merely remembering the coldness with which she generally treated him. She had got into the habit of treating him in that way from the first, when she had been prejudiced against him and the annoyance she often felt at his indifference made her think that she ought to be consistent and never allow her formal manner to change. Unfortunately she now and then forgot herself, as she had done after the little skirmish with Vancouver at Mrs. Wyndham's, and then she talked to him and asked him questions of himself almost as though he were an intimate friend.

John, who was a man of the world as well as a man of talent, thought she was capricious, and since he was infinitely removed from falling in love with her, or indeed with any other woman, he found it agreeable to talk to her when she was in a good humor, and when she was ungracious he merely kept out of her way. If he had deliberately made up his mind to attract her attention and interest, he could have chosen no surer way than this. But although he admired her beauty and vivacity, and now and then took a real pleasure in her conversation, his mind was too full of other matters to receive any lasting impression of such a kind. Besides, she was capricious, and he hated mere caprice.

And now there was a hush in the house, and then a short burst of applause, and Josephine, looking down, saw John standing alone upon the platform in front of the great bronze statue of Beethoven. He looked exactly as he did when she met him in society; there was no change in the even color of his face, nor any awkwardness or self-consciousness in his easy attitude as he stood there, broad-shouldered and square, his strong hand just resting on the plain desk that had been placed in the middle of the stage. He waited a few seconds for silence in the audience, and then began to speak. His voice sounded as natural and his accent as unaffected as though he were talking alone with a friend, saving only that every syllable he uttered was audible in the furthest gallery. Josephine leaned forward upon the red leather cushion of the railing before her, watching and listening intently.

She did not understand the subject well. John Harrington was a reformer, she knew; or, to speak more accurately, he desired to be one. He believed great changes were necessary. He believed in an established Civil Service, in something which, if not exactly Free Trade, was much nearer to it than the existing tariff. Above all, he believed in truth and freedom instead of lying and bribery. As he spoke and cleared the way to his main points, his voice never quavered or faltered. He was perfectly sure of himself, and he reserved all his strength for the time when it should be most required. For a quarter of an hour he proceeded, and the people sat in dead silence before him. Then he paused a moment, and shifted his position a little, moving a step forward as though to gain a better hearing.

"I am coming to the point," he said,–"the point that I must come to sooner or later. I am a Democrat, as perhaps some of you know."

Here there was an uneasy movement in the house. "Yes, I guess you are!" cried a voice from somewhere, in a tone of high nasal irony. Some one laughed, and some one hissed, and then there was silence again.

"Exactly," continued John, unmoved by the interruption. "I am a Democrat, and though the sight does not astonish you so much as it might have done twenty years ago, it is worthy of remark, nevertheless. But I have a peculiarity which I think you will allow to be extremely novel. I do not begin by saying that salvation is only to be found with Democrats, and I will not believe any man who says it belongs exclusively to Republicans. If we were suddenly put in great danger of any kind, war, famine, or revolution, I think that in some way or other we should manage to save the country between us, Republicans and Democrats, for the common good."

"That's so!" said more than one voice.

"Of course we should. Is there any one among us all who would not give up his individual views about a local election rather than see the country go to pieces? Would any man be such a coward as to be afraid to change his mind in order to prevent another Rebellion, another Civil War? No, no, we are more civilized than that. We want our own men in Congress, our own friends in office, just so long as they are serviceable–just so long as the country can stand it, if you like it in that way. But if it comes to be a question between the public good and having your cousin made postmaster in a country village, I think there is enough patriotism in the average Democrat or Republican to send the country cousin about his business. If worst comes to worst, we can save the country between us, depend upon it. We have done it before."

Here there was a burst of willing applause. It is a great point to bring an audience into the position of applauding themselves.

Joe watched John's every gesture, and listened intently to every word. His voice rang clear and strong through the great hall, and he was beginning to be roused. He had gained a decided advantage in the success of his last words, and as he gathered his strength for the real effort which was to come, his cheek paled and his gray eyes grew brighter. He spoke out again through the subsiding clamor.

"Now I say that the country is in danger. It is in very great danger, the greatest danger that can threaten any community. The institutions of a nation are like the habits of a man, except that they are harder to improve and easier to spoil. We have got into bad habits, and if we do not mend them they will take us to a more certain destruction than revolution, famine, or war,–or all three together. It is easier to fight a thing that has a head to it and a name, than a thing that is everywhere and has no name, because no one has the courage to christen it.

"We are like a man who has grown from being a peddler of tape and buttons to be the greatest dry-goods-man in his town, and then to being a great dealer for many towns. When he was a peddler he could carry the profit and loss on his buttons and tape in his head, because the profits were literally in his pocket, and the losses were literally out of it. But when he has grown into a great merchant he must keep books, and he must keep a great many of them, and they must be kept accurately, or he will get into trouble and go to ruin. That is true, is it not? And when he was a peddler he could buy his stock-in-trade himself, and be sure that it was what he wanted; but when he is one of the great merchants he must employ other people to help him, and unless they are the right people and understand the business, he will be ruined. Nobody can deny that.

"Very well. We began in a small way as a nation, without much stock-in-trade, and we kept our accounts by rule of thumb. But it seems to me we are doing a pretty large business as a nation just now."

There was a laugh, and sundry remarks to the effect that the audience understood what John was driving at.

"Yes, we are doing a great business, and to all intents and purposes we are doing it on false business principles, and with an absolutely incompetent staff of clerks. What would you think of a merchant who dismissed all his book-keepers every four years, and engaged a set of shoemakers, or tailors, or artists, or musicians to fill up the vacancies?"

A low murmur ran through the hall, a murmur of disapprobation. Probably a large number out of the three thousand men and women present had cousins in country post offices. But John did not pause; his voice grew full and clear, ringing high above the dull sounds in the house. From her place in the gallery Josephine looked down, never taking her eyes from the face of the orator. She too was pale with excitement; had she been willing to acknowledge it, it was fear. That deep-toned beginnin

g of a protest from the great concourse was like an omen of failure to her sensitive ear. She longed to see John Harrington succeed and carry his hearers with him into an access of enthusiasm. John expected no such thing. He only wanted the people to understand thoroughly what he meant, for he was sure that if once they knew the truth clearly they would feel for it as he himself did.

"Nevertheless," he continued, "I tell you that is what we are doing, what we have been doing for years, from the very beginning. And if we go on doing it we shall get into trouble. We choose schoolboys to do the work of men, we expect that by the mere signature of the head of the executive any man can be turned into an accomplished public officer fit to be compared with one whose whole life has been spent in the public service. We wish to be represented abroad among foreign nations in a way becoming to our dignity and very great power, and we select as our ministers a number of gentlemen who in most cases have never read a diplomatic dispatch in their lives, and who sometimes are not even acquainted with any language save their own. Perhaps you will say that our dignity is not of much importance provided our power is great enough. I do not think you will say it, but there are communities in our country where it would most certainly be said. Very well, so be it. But where do you think our power comes from? Do you think there is a boundless store of some natural product called power, of which we need only take as much as we want in order to stand a head and shoulders higher than any other nation in the world? What is power? Can a man be strong if he has an internal disease, or is his strength any use to him if his arms and legs are out of joint? Would you believe in the strength of a great firm that hired a company of actors from a theatre, and made the tragedian cashier and the low-comedy man head book-keeper?

"The sick man may live for years with his sickness, and the man whose limbs are all distorted may still deal a formidable blow with his head, if it is thick enough. The firm may prosper for a time with its staff of theatrical clerks, provided there is enough business to pay for all their mistakes and leave a margin of profit. But the sick man does not live because he is diseased, but in spite of it. The distorted joints of the cripple do not help him to fight. The firm is not rich because its business is done by tragedians and walking-gentlemen, but in spite of them. If the doctor fails to give his medicine, if the fighting grows too rough for the cripple, if business grows slack, or if some good business man with competent assistants starts a strong opposition–what happens? What must inevitably happen? Why, the sick man dies, the cripple gets the worst of it, and the theatrical firm of merchants goes straight into bankruptcy.

"And so I tell you that we are in danger. We are sick with the foul disease of office seeking; we are crippled hand and foot not only for fighting but for working, because our public officers are inexperienced men who spend four years in learning a trade not theirs, and are very generally turned out before they have half learnt it; we are doing a political business which will succeed fairly well just so long as we are rich enough to provide funds for any amount of extravagance and keep enough in our pockets to buy bread and cheese with afterwards. Just so long.

"When we have been lanced here in Boston and the blood is running freely, we can still cut a slice out of the West and use it like court-plaster to stop the bleeding. Some day there will be no more slices to be had. It will be a bad day in State Street."

This remark raised a laugh and a good deal of noise for a moment. But the audience were soon silent again. Whether they meant to approve or disapprove, they kept their opinions to themselves. Miss Thorn did not comprehend the allusion, but she was listening with all her ears.

"You understand that," John went on. "Then understand it about the rest of the country as well. Understand that we are all the time patching our income with our capital; and it answers pretty well because there is a good deal of capital and not so very many of ourselves, as yet. There will be twice as many of us in a few years, and very much less than half as much capital. Understand above all that we are getting into bad habits– habits we should despise in a corporation, and condemn by very bad names in any individual man of our acquaintance.

"And when you have understood it, look at matters as they stand. Look at the incompetence of our public officers, look at our ruined carrying trade, at those vile enactions of fools, and worse than fools, the Navigation Laws of the United States, and tell me whether things are as they should be. Tell me what has become of liberty if you cannot buy a ship where you can get her best and cheapest, and hoist your own flag upon her, and call her your own? You may pay for her and bring her home with you, but though she were ten times paid for, you cannot hoist the American flag, nor register her in your own port, nor claim the protection of your country for your own property–because, forsooth, the ship was not built on American stocks, where she would cost three times her value, and put a job into the hands of a set of builders of river steamboats and harbor mudscows."

Loud murmurs ran through the audience, and cries of "That's so!" and counter cries of "Freetrader!" were heard on all sides. John's great voice rang out like a trumpet. He knew the sensitiveness of his townsmen on the point.

"I am not speaking against protection," he said, and at the magic word "protection" a dead silence again fell over the vast crowd. "I say to you, 'Protect!' Protect, all of you, merchants, tradesmen, the great body of the commerce of this country; protect whatever you all decide together needs protection. But by the greatness and the power you have, by the Heaven that gave us this land of ours to till and to enjoy, protect also yourselves and your liberties."

A patriotic phrase in the mouth of a man who has the golden gift of speech, coupled with the statement of a principle popular with his audience, is a sure point in an oration. Something in John's tone and gesture touched the sympathetic chord, and the house broke out in a great cry of applause.

An orator cannot always talk in strict logical sequence. He must search about for the right nail till he has found it, and then drive it home.

"Aye, that is the point," he said. "You men of Boston here, look to your harbors, crowded with English craft, and think of what is gone, lost to you forever, unless you will strike a blow for it. Many of you are old enough to remember how it used to be. Look at Salem Harbor, at Marblehead. Where are the fleets of noble ships that lay side by side along the great docks, the ships that did half the carrying trade of the world? Where are the great merchantmen that used to sail so grandly away to the East and that came home so richly laden? They are sunk or gone to pieces, or sold as old timber and copper and nails to the gentlemen who build mudscows. What are the great merchants doing who owned those fleets? They are employing their time in building railroads with English iron and foreign labor into desolate deserts in the West, which they hope to sell for a handsome profit, and probably will. But when there are no more desolate deserts and English iron and foreign labor to be had, they will wish they had their ships again, and that in all these years they had got possession of the carrying trade of the world, as they might have done.

"That is what I am here to say. The time is come to give up the shifts and unstable expedients that we needed, or thought we needed, in our early beginnings. Let us pull down all these scaffoldings and stages that have helped us to build, and let us see whether our fabric will stand upon its base, erect, without the paltry support of a few rotting timbers. Let us substitute the permanent for the transitory, the stable for the unstable, and the reality for the sham. Let us have a Civil Service in fact as well as in name, a service of men trained to their duties, and who shall spend their lives in fulfilling them; a service of competent men to represent us abroad, and a service of honest men to do the country's business at home, instead of making the country do theirs and being paid for it into the bargain. Let us put men into Congress who will cover the seas with our ships again, as well as make our harbors impassable with a competition of cheap ferry-boats. Begin here, as you began here more than a hundred years ago, and as you succeeded then you will succeed now.

"Begin, and go on, and God prosper you; and when the work is done, when bribery and extortion and all corruption are crushed forever out of our public life, when the Navigation Act is a thing of the past, and you are again the carriers of the world's commerce as well as the greatest sharers in it, then it will be time enough to give a name to the men who shall have done all these things, Republicans and Democrats together, a new party, the last and the greatest of all parties that the country has ever seen. You will find a name, surely enough, that will answer the purpose then; but whatever that name may be, it will not be forgotten that, for the third time in the history of our land, Massachusetts has struck the first and the strongest blow in the struggle for liberty, honor, and truth."

Few men in public life had as good a right as John Harrington to denounce all manner of dishonesty. Many a speaker would have raised a sneering laugh by that last phrase, but even John's enemies admitted that his hands were clean. Coming from one of themselves it was a strong appeal, and the applause was long and loud. With a courteous inclination John turned and left the platform through the door at the back.

He was well enough satisfied. His hearers had been moved for a moment to enthusiasm. They would go home and on mature reflection would not agree with him; but a blow struck is a point in the fight so long as it is felt at all, and John was well pleased at the reception he had met with. He had avoided every detail, and had confined himself to the widest generalities, but his homely illustrations would not be forgotten, and his strong individuality had created a sincere desire in many who had been there that night to hear him speak again.

For some minutes after John had left the platform, Josephine sat unmoved in her seat beside her aunt, lost in thought as she watched the surging crowd below.

"Well," said Miss Schenectady, "you have heard John Harrington now." Joe started. She had grown used to the implied interrogation her aunt usually conveyed in that way.

"He is a great man, Aunt Zo?," she said quietly, and looked round. There was a moisture in her beautiful brown eyes that told of great excitement. She was very pale too, and looked tired.

"Yes, my dear," said Aunt Zoruiah. "But we had better go home right away, Joe darling. You are so pale, I suppose you must be a good deal used up."

"Allow me to see you to your carriage," said Pocock Vancouver in dulcet tones, coming up to the two ladies as they rose.

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