Baltimore Evening Sun (22 May 1911): 6.


More Baltimoreans are going abroad this year than I have ever known.—Arthur W. Robson.

First blood for the Seeing-America-First campaign!

What American State will be the first to abolish its Legislature? At least 20 States have already gone halfway—by introducing, in some form or other, the checks of the initiative and referendum—but not one has yet gone, as the poet hath it, the whole hog. That very thingm however, is bound to be done some day, and perhaps it will be done in the near future. The American people, after more than a century of bitter experience, are beginning to see the light. They now realize that the Legislature in the State, like the City Council in the city, is inevitably the headquarters of all governmental incompetence, stupidity and corruption. An honest Legislature is as rare as a modest actor. Here in Maryland we have not had four in 80 years. And an intelligent Legislature is rarer still.

Not, of course, that every lawmaker is necessarily a rascal. Our system of choosing Legislators and Councilmen gives enormous advantage to those aspirants who happen to be rascals, and the next most noticeable advantages to those who happen to be jackasses, but all the same not a few honest and intelligent men are returned at every election. It must be apparent, however, that such men are nearly always in the minority and that, in consequence, their influence for good in much less powerful than it ought to be. The normal Legislator, like the normal Councilman, remains a fellow of low intelligence and barroom morals. It is only fear that keeps him on the track—fear of his decenter colleagues, of the newspapers, of public indignation, of the penitentiary. Whenever the chance offers to turn a trick, safely and to his profit he is sure to turn that trick.

There is scarcely need, at this late day, to attempt to show why this is so—why it must always be so. We all know how Legislators and Councilmen are commonly chosen—how it happens that they represent, not the people of their districts, but the professional politicians of their districts—how their training makes it practically impossible for them to regard public service save as a game of grab—how, once they are in office, they quickly yield to the double influence of the bribers who offer them money and the bosses who threaten them with extinction.

The trouble with the average Legislator is not that he is essentially dishonest, but that he is essentially stupid. Representing a small group of electors, he is himself small—a neighborhood notable—a paddler in a little puddle. This rule, of course, is not invariable; like all other generalizations it falls down before exceptional facts. Men of broad intelligence, of large vision, are sometimes candidates for the Legislature, and now and then they are actually elected. But it must be plain that three times out of four the man who aspires to any such lowly and ill-rewarded office is a dwarf. He can understand, perhaps, the needs of his own little mudpuddle, and he may even make a sincere effort to serve those needs, but when it comes to the needs of other mudpuddles he is not interested, and when it comes to the needs of the State as a whole, or of any large section of it, he is unable to grasp them and utterly disinclined to make the attempt.

This explains the sordid drama that is played out at Annapolis at every session of the Legislature. Country legislators, reaching the State capital with their pockets full of local bills, put through those bills—and then lay back and watch the show. Soon there is something going on in each of 10 rings. The city of Baltimore is in conflict with its professional politicians or with half a dozen piratical corporations. A dozen other corporations, menaced by bellringers, roar and sweat blood. The country solon cannot understand half of these combats—but in every one his vote will count. So he is approached, tempted, won over. The bait used may be nothing more poisonous than the flattery of some “big” politician. Again it may be cash in hand. But whatever it is—whether the lawmaker himself is paid for his vote directly or his vote is delivered for ready money by some professional manipulator who acquires control of it by promises or threats—the fact remains that a vote has been influenced by corrupt means.

Not every countryman is open to such approaches—nor every city man. But there are always enough fools and rascals in the crowd to make the game worth while. Six votes may be enough deliver the goods—and it is always possible to buy the six votes.

The same thing happens in City Councils. The average Councilman in the average American city is, if anything, a more stupid and venal man than the average Legislator. He is, speaking generally, either a ward boss himself or the disgusting slave of a ward boss—and the aim of a ward boss, it must be plain, is not to work for the city’s good, but to work for his own good. In most cases he pursues politics as a trade. It is his only means of livelihood. Therefore, it is not astonishing that he should fall with alacrity upon every opportunity to turn his influence into cash. To ask him to neglect or spurn such opportunities would be, indeed, to question his sanity.

The remedy for all this, of course, is plain. Get rid of your small and purchasable men and you will get rid of bribery. But how are you going to get rid of them? By abolishing Legislatures, City Councils and all other such asylums of the ignorant and corrupt. But laws must be made! Some one must run the city and State! Well, why not hire a few first-rate men to do that work—and then watch those men?

That plan, in various forms, has been actually tried by various American cities—and always with great success. In some cities, such as Baltimore, for example, the City Council has been deprived of the absolute power which once made it a cesspool of corruption, and a small and efficient Board of Estimates now does most of its old work. In other cities—nearly 160 of them—the Council has been abolished altogether, and a board of three or four man has taken its place. Membership upon such boards is attractive to first-rate men—men who would not think of entering a City Council. And the people, watching three or four men, can see what each of them is doing. It is difficult to keep tabs upon 30 or 40 councilmen, or 100 Legislators, too often it is impossible to distinguish between an honest vote and a bought vote. But it is easy to keep tabs upon three or four commissioners.

H. L. Mencken