Henry Hyndman March 1881

Lights and Shades of American Politics

Source: Fortnightly Review, March 1881, p.340-357 p.340-357;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

America during the crisis of a Presidential election must always be an interesting field of observation even to the most hasty passer-by. Universal suffrage coupled with almost universal education may there be seen in full work, and the result, especially when the vast absorption of ignorant immigrants of other nationalities is taken account of, is interesting enough. There is no doubt much fault to be found with the details of political business. That people are too much taken up with their own affairs to attend to politics in ordinary times, and therefore find themselves at a period of national danger handed over to the tender mercies of corrupt professional politicians who are always at their post, is one of the commonplaces of European criticism on American affairs. And yet this view was shown to be erroneous by the election of President Hayes, and has been, as many will think, falsified again by the election of Mr. Garfield. Americans, awakened to the defects of Republican administration of Federal affairs, determined to remedy them, and during the last four years the central administration would compare favourably in point of ability and honesty with that of any community. Reforms have begun at the top, and there is reason to hope that they will work their way down.

The late election, like that of 1876, has been really carried out by the people themselves. Mr. Garfield would not have been the chosen candidate of the leading politicians of the Republican party. This was clearly shown at Chicago, and not all the energy of the Republican stump orators, though they included among them General Grant himself; will account for the unprecedentedly heavy vote cast on the 2nd of November last. Men had quietly surveyed the action of the two great parties since the disputed election of 1876, and they saw that the best interests of the nation as a whole had been maintained by that party which had not a majority either in the Assembly or in the Senate. The Republicans had shown themselves capable of steering through the heaviest period of commercial depression which has yet come upon the United States, and might therefore well be trusted to carry out the national policy through four years of almost assured prosperity. Thus, in spite of the unassailable public character of General Hancock, the Democratic nominee, the Democrats were routed in a fashion which the heavy vote cast for Mr. Tilden induced them to think impossible; this, too, though after the loss of the State elections in Indiana and Ohio in October they had practically adopted the main features of the Republican programme. A party victory on one side or the other may matter little to us here in England. On the whole, we may expect that those who have been successful would be the more anxious to keel) on good terms with Great Britain than their opponents, and as the Democrats have abandoned Free Trade there is little to be hoped in the way of a reformed tariff from either party. Protection has won all along the line.

But when we look at the measures which have been adopted by the successful side alike in adversity and in prosperity, when the quiet, the order, and the good feeling which was maintained is considered, all must surely recognise that notwithstanding the many and grave difficulties which the United States have yet to encounter, an organised democracy educated by books and by public discussion, each and all having a deep interest in the political welfare of the whole nation, is not in important affairs quite the irrational, corrupt, self-seeking body which some are disposed to represent it. None, I am confident, could pass through the great northern cities during such a contest as that which was decided at the close of last year without being struck by the general courtesy, the invincible fair-play allowed to political opponents, and the regulated enthusiasm of the mass of the people. Does a great Democratic procession pass through a Republican city the people turn out to see it, but no opposition of any kind is offered. The same with the Republicans in a Democratic city. New York is, as even this last vote shows, overwhelmingly Democratic, and numbers among its population a greater proportion of Irish and Germans than perhaps any other American city. Yet the very day before the test elections in Ohio and Indiana 52,000 Republicans paraded in a torch-light procession through the most frequented thoroughfares, and not a single disturbance of any kind took place. This too at a time when business was checked by the political contest, and when in every hotel or railway-car people talked of nothing else. In the same way political orators were safe of a fair hearing, no matter which side they belonged to. I myself heard a most trenchant oration delivered by one of the Cabinet in the very heat of the struggle, and yet, though the doors were all open, and anyone could come in, not one single interruption did I note. So it was all over the Union. What trifling disturbances did occur seemed only to make the general peacefulness more noticeable. Surely political discussions and demonstrations conducted in such a spirit are in themselves the best political education, and develop among the mass of the people an admirable power of self-restraint.

What, however, is perhaps more instructive is that the enormous vote was cast – and taking the northern and middle States alone the majority is something overwhelming – in favour of a policy which involves continuous self-sacrifice. Thus the contention of the Free Traders justly is that by imposing such a heavy tariff the bulk of the community is unfairly mulcted of its hard earnings for the benefit of the home manufacturer. But the majority prefer to make the sacrifice in the interest of patriotism, and, misguided as they may be, this is very different from the ordinary imputations made upon the tendencies of democracy. The same with the reduction of the debt. If any country was ever justified in casting some portion of the burden upon succeeding generations, America is that country. Ten, twenty years hence the debt will be literally a flea-bite as compared with what it is to-day, in comparison with the vastly-increased wealth of the whole community. Yet what does the American democracy decide? – deliberately to strengthen the hands of those who never shrank from reducing the debt month by month even at the time of the greatest depression. Nay, common men will speak to you of the moral effect of thus paying their way and showing to the world how the government of the people by the people will never hesitate to take upon its own shoulders the cost of being great. And thus we see that year after year the United States far surpass any old country in their persistent efforts to cut down their liabilities at the expense of the present generation. Nor has this decision been come to without the opposite course having been championed with vigour and ability. The people have been counselled over and over again to change the policy, and on sound grounds enough, but they have on the fullest information finally decided not to do so. As to the greenback advocates – the men who stood up for inflation, repudiation, and the rest of it – where are they? Literally crushed out by the common sense and public spirit of the great mass of the voters.

Leaving all minor issues aside, then there is much to admire in the recent vote of 50,000,000 of people. They have risen in the free bluff air of universal publicity to a just conception of what constitutes the true greatness of a nation. Both sides felt they were on safe ground when they appealed to the patriotic Unionist sentiment which dominated all classes. Whatever advantages may be claimed for Home Rule, America, just at present, is not the best place to begin a propaganda in that sense. The great democracy which owes its speech and the basis of its political training to England is as little inclined as the mother country to give up any portion of its inheritance. Nothing has been shown more clearly; and when we see this coupled with a resolution to maintain the national credit, to push aside all dangerous counsels, and to keep in power those men who are the most likely to enforce the principles of justice and honesty, we may feel sure that the national tendency of such a people is to work itself clear of difficulties in other directions. That there are questions arising which will need all the capacity of rulers and ruled to handle satisfactorily, that also corruption in its widest sense needs correction far more in the lower phases of political life than in the upper, are facts only too certain. But the very same methods which have sufficed to purify in part at least the great central offices will in time act in the like manner elsewhere. The proportion of native-born Americans with high national feeling is every year increasing steadily, and to the younger men we may fairly look to face with success those problems which are growing with their growth, and which can only be dealt with when their difficulty is recognised.

None who now land in America can fail to be struck with the fact that the country is exceptionally prosperous. The contrast between what is seen now and what was to be noticed four or five years ago is indeed amazing. The immense advance which has taken place since 1870, the commercial depression notwithstanding, seems to have been realised all at once. Whilst the mercantile classes have been grumbling, the producing classes have been working. Iowa and Wisconsin, Texas and Colorado, have been making way with giant strides, whilst the progress of Minnesota has perhaps been greater still. The population has increased fully 10,000,000 in the ten years, and Vast tracts of country, which at the commencement of the period were little more than rough waste, are now covered with prosperous farms. The farmer has become wealthy, the labourer has become a farmer, and emigrants are now pouring in faster than ever to swell the giant wave of produce which is rolling in from the West. These ten years have been to America what twenty-five years might be to an older country. The financial collapse of 1873 has, as it were, until lately hidden from the world what has taken place. But now that the farmers have fairly realised the profits on their good harvests, and the country feels the everincreasing benefit of a sound financial system and the rapid transfer of its securities from foreign into American hands, the change is marvellous. Wealth is rolling up so rapidly, and men who but now were apparently poor have become so rich, that trade of every description is more and more active.

It is amusing to watch the gradual influx into the cities of families who have for the last few years been living economically as if never sure of what might come. All at once they feel that the savings they have accumulated will not turn to dust and ashes, and are preparing to have a “good time” accordingly. And these worthy people are not economical in their luxuries.[1] The Western men and their wives who are now coming on to the Eastern cities, and perhaps afterwards to Europe, to such an extent as to crowd the hotels, and bring about an amount of trade never before known, have made up their minds to see the world in good earnest. Last year saw the first commencement of this so-called “boom,” in the sudden and in many respects unreasoning rush of speculation, especially in mines. A reaction of course set in, but nothing can check the flood of prosperity which has again begun, arising as it does from the astounding extent of agricultural work done. A Chicago man, for instance, boasting of the recovery of his city from disaster, will tell you that she must be the London of America. “She’ll do it, sir. No sea-board city was ever the real centre of a great country. New York has no show against us in the long run. What does the world depend upon – the food supply. Well, we receive and ship more grain than any city in the world; we have the greatest cattle market in the world; we kill and put up more hogs than any city in the world. Then we are the greatest lumber city, and the centre of the whole railroad system of the United States.” There is a mean and a ludicrous side, as Professor Huxley and others have pointed out, to this glorification of vast wealth and vast transactions; but the contrast on any line of railroad leading out of Chicago between what was in 1870 and what is in 1881, is enough to turn the heads of men of higher intelligence than those who are for the most part usefully engaged in supplying the first wants of others.

For, as matters stand, all classes of the community share this improvement. There are grave drawbacks to the furious – there is no other word for it – industrial development of the United States, but they are not felt at such times as these. Men who are making money hand over fist are not men to reduce wages to their lowest point, and in some respects the American system is deliberately based on the maintenance of a high scale. Few consumers think of complaining that luxuries should be dear, or that those who furnish them should be well paid. Besides, so far it has been easy in most States for a saving man to take himself out of the labouring into the independent class if he has any knowledge whatever of farming or business. With wages varying from one-and-a-half to two or three dollars a day, with food exceedingly cheap, and clothing by no means so dear for the ordinary working dress as it used to be, a man may easily find himself in a short time in possession of sufficient means to remove himself from the wage-earning class. This process is going on to such an extent that if it were not for immigration there would soon be a shortness of labour for any chance employment. There are many capitalists, of course, who regret the high wages they are obliged to pay, and look upon the independent tone of the working-class as little short of an outrage upon society. But this is not the sounder opinion. Thinking Americans wish above all other matters to keep up the standard of comfort among the bulk of the people, knowing right well that not only is this to the advantage of the whole community, but that in this way alone can the gravest dangers be avoided on the next occurrence of a bad period in industrial concerns. But for the time being there is such prosperity that the certainty of future reaction is entirely overlooked by the majority. The one idea of those who have money and those who have not is to make hay while the sun shines, and there can be little doubt that within a short time we shall see a renewal of that great speculative fever which led to the excessive railway building prior to 1873, and which this time may take some other turn.

Meanwhile immigrants are coming in, many of them with capital of their own, at the rate of over 50,000 a month; American exports seem likely to fetch good prices; a steady Republican Government will come again into power this month; and it is tolerably safe to prophecy smooth things for the next eight or ten years. Although the supply of waste land is far from being inexhaustible, and. each successive wheat centre is worked down to comparative infertility quicker than its predecessor,[2] there is more than sufficient to last any probable increase of population for a generation. Western America (in which the newly-developed regions of the Dominion of Canada must be included for all purposes of calculation) will long be the best country in the world for emigrants, and the effect of the competition in breaking down the land system in this country is not perhaps even yet fully appreciated. Every emigrant who goes thither not only removes a surplus hand from this side, but as he soon produces enough and more than enough for himself and his family, the remainder must come over here to still further bring down prices.

Nothing brings home to an Englishman the inevitable effect of this competition so completely as the actual sight of the endless lines of freight trains, bearing food one way on all the Western roads, met by almost equally numerous emigrant trains bound in the opposite direction with their load of fresh producers. The very immensity of the production is resulting in a cheapening of the cost of transport, and the water-communication of the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence is being brought into direct connection with the great grain fields of the West. Passing through the Eastern States the result of this Western development is at once manifest. Wheat is scarcely to be seen. Cattle do not increase in proportion to the pasture land. The Eastern farmer, like his brother in England, has to exercise the keenest judgment in order to make a profit. Of course all this is to be found set out in the bluebooks, and has been commented on over and over again. But it is the result of less than ten years of development, and the change in the appearance of New England gives but cold encouragement to those who think that a similar change can be averted here at home. Never perhaps in history has a great economical cause worked so rapidly. For some time, too, it will produce a cumulative effect. Old Horace Greeley’s advice of “Go West, young man, go West,” has been literally taken by whole cohorts of young men; and whether in the vast factory farms of Minnesota and the Sacramento plains, or in the smaller holdings which are found in every Western State, the agricultural production is being forced on at a rate both with respect to grain and cattle hitherto unprecedented. In no country in the world is so much hard, steady work being done or so much genuine comfort obtained by the mass of the people as in these new regions of the West.

No doubt difficulties are met with, as, for instance, not long since the farmers of Kansas would have been reduced to destitution but for the fact that they were able to obtain work at a fair rate of wages on a new railroad. Again, the facilities offered by the mortgage companies and other financial institutions misled many of the Western farmers into borrowing largely. They therefore took up more land than they could conveniently handle in bad times. This, of course, was not observed when everything was prosperous, but when the pinch came the interest began to force them to the wall. This is true of large portions of the Western States, and, in fact, accounts for the comparatively slow recovery, in some instances, after two or three good harvests.

What, however, is in its way very remarkable, is that these very farmers, though not in all cases well disposed towards the capitalists who lend their money, are distinctly in favour of a Protectionist policy at the present time. No doubt the feeling of pride in the Union, and dread of any State-right doctrines gaining the ascendancy, had much to do with the heavy Republican vote; but it is surely surprising that in a State like Iowa, for instance, or Wisconsin, where the farming interest may be said to be supreme, Free Trade doctrines should have made so little headway. This cannot be attributed to ignorance, for the population is very fairly educated, and men read what comes in their way. But the truth is, as Mr. Thomas Hughes puts it, that they do prefer, deliberately prefer, to pay a bonus to their own countrymen, rather than to buy cheap from the foreigner. In this way they contend not only that they build up their own manufactures, but that they keep the wealth in the country. “If your artisans aren’t doing well in the old country, let them come over here as your farmers do, they’ll soon find plenty of work.” All the argument in the world will not affect such a statement.

The plain object of the great majority of the American people, at the present time, is to make their country absolutely independent, as far as possible, of every external source of supply. Their food and raw material find a ready market everywhere, and if they insist upon having a less price for it in gold or their own bonds than they could obtain in manufactures, that, of course, is their own affair. The annoyance to which they are subjected by the strict customhouse regulations, the administrative drawbacks which are so obvious to the bystander, affect but a very small portion of the population; the rest are satisfied that it is better to pay twice as much wheat – in practice it is not nearly so much quality for quality – to an American for an axe, than it would be to pay the less price to an Englishman. Americans are not in the least cosmopolitan in practice, whatever they may be in theory. Patriotism means with them a strong desire to push ahead their own country, and there is no pretence that they wish to do so with any regard for the interests of other people. A nation which commenced its struggle for independence by a resolute determination not to import goods, however much they might want them, in order to avoid paying what they considered unfair duties, may be thought to have an hereditary taint of Protectionism in the blood. Whether that will convey much consolation to our own manufacturers may be doubted. Sooner or later a change will probably come, but the time is not yet.

Protection, too, is not confined to merchandise. Of late, as is well known, both parties have likewise decided that protection of labour against competition is essential, and that the Chinese must be kept out. Few would have thought a year or two ago that the most telling attack which could be made upon a candidate for the Presidency would be that he favoured Chinese immigration. But so it has come about. Just as the workman thinks he must be completely crushed by the importation of English iron and cotton in the Eastern States, so he now looks with dread to the influx of direct competitors from Asia. There are 350,000,000 people ready to farm out their surplus labour, and who knows what may be the result of the overflow. It is a grave question, however it is looked at. Possibly while the conflict of nationalities is slowly coming to an end, the conflict of civilisations and the social struggle have barely commenced.

The American resolution has, at any rate, been positively forced upon the country by the determined attitude of the working classes. The working men of the Pacific Slope of course began the agitation; but it has now thoroughly permeated their brethren in the Eastern States. There, in the first instance, no great objection was felt to the influx of Chinamen. On the contrary, the press almost unanimously supported the plain reading of the Constitution, Chinamen had as much right to come to the United States as any other nationality. Even if there were no Constitution proclaiming the equality of men, the existing treaties with China clearly forbid Americans to take any steps to stop the immigration, and according to political economy capital has the right to employ the cheapest labour to be had. But all such arguments as these were swept aside by mere brute force. Infamous crimes were committed upon the industrious Asiatics, because they worked at a cheap rate in the land which they had been led to believe was open to all.[3] As, however, our Australian Colonies, as well as British Columbia, have also determined to prevent the Chinese from landing, or at any rate from competing, it is clear that the objections to them have a tolerably wide range. That they are quiet, saving, and industrious, does not help them in the least. As to their dirt and immorality that is really mere pretence. No doubt Chinatown in San Francisco is rather a queer place; but it is not half so bad as the Irish quarter in some of the Eastern cities, nor are the vices of the Chinaman paraded in any way. If sanitary arrangements are infringed there is the law to be enforced, if the immorality is a public scandal it can be put down by the police.

The real objection to the Chinese may be learned from any intelligent working man. What he sees is that the Chinaman comes and begins to compete in his trade. He is very hard-working, very steady, and exceedingly sharp in the matter of wages. He eats little, drinks less, and stows away anywhere – there is no vertebrate animal living of equal size who will thrive on so little air as a Chinaman; besides, as he is utterly indifferent to amusement, and is specially anxious to work out his dues on first arrival to the company which imported him, he works double tides. As a result of this industry, ere long he starts a little shop – I am speaking now of work in the cities – and takes unto him two or three other Chinamen as industrious, as sober, as easily housed and fed as himself. Thereupon begins a process of underselling, which the working man finds yet more objectionable than the original direct competition. Presently this particular trade is completely blocked. For there come more and yet more Chinamen, and there are no one knows how many millions more of them across the Pacific ready to step in to fill up the places below, as each of the original immigrants takes his place, on a rung higher up the social ladder. But that isn’t the worst of it either. “Each of these abominable Mongolians is a sort of economical vampire. He will eat nothing American that he can get the like of from China. He buys Chinese clothes, eats Chinese food, does business with Chinese merchants, smokes – confound him he don’t even drink – Chinese opium, there is not a red cent to be squeezed out of him anywhere. And then, when he has made his pile, off he goes with it to China to live, and another Chinaman, for all the world exactly like the one that went, only more thrifty, if possible, comes in to take his place. They don’t stop in America, they don’t mix with us, not a man in the whole country understands their language – look there, there’s one of them now reading a post-card, that not a human being but himself can make head or tail of – they take advantage of all our civilisation, and I’ll tell you what,” with strong Western affirmations, “they’ll clear us all out of here if we don’t clear them out.” In the mining regions, where the Chinamen do not work underground, and are exceedingly useful as cooks and laundrymen, the feeling is not so bitter. Still Americans hate to see these people gathering up money and going away with it. The whole process is to them objectionable in the highest degree; to Irishmen, the Chinese, like the negroes, are specially hateful, because they are direct rivals in every department of work. Thus all talk here, too, about political economy, the rights of man, and so forth, sounds to them altogether “too thin.” There is not room for the white Protectionist and the yellow on that continent.

It was this animosity against the Chinese which formed the basis of agitation in California. Without that to go upon in all probability no great change could have been made. The workingmen would not have voted on any issue which less directly concerned themselves. But a deeper set of causes underlay the general dissatisfaction with the arrangements then in existence. These extend throughout the United States, and must be regarded as one of the gravest dangers to the future of the country. Of the differences between capital and labour we have enough on this side of the Atlantic, but were it not that there is still such an enormous territory open to all we should hear much more of these differences in America. The influence of money is far too great for the well-being of the whole country. Of the almighty dollar and its irresistible power in some respects, much has from time to time been said. Even during the last elections, when the gravest issues were supposed to be involved, the amount of bribery which went on was a scandal to all really patriotic Americans. Both parties spent money to an extent previously unprecedented. This corruption, which will be increasingly dangerous in Federal matters, is already a positive curse in relation to purely State business. There the influence of capitalists becomes directly injurious to the interests of the community.

Nowhere in the world do great corporations and even individual capitalists possess greater power than in the United States. And it is used in a manner which at times renders them specially obnoxious. We have only to look at such enterprises as the elevated railroads in New York to see how in one direction a ring of capitalists are enabled to ride rough-shod over all private interests without compensation either to the people injured or to the municipality itself. These railroads running down the main arteries of the city are no doubt an enormous advantage to the business part of the population, but they render the lower districts of New York still more dark and miserable than they were before, they shake whole blocks of buildings to such an extent as to be almost unendurable, and the passing of trains in front of the first-floor windows has greatly injured the value of property. But there is no remedy whatever either for the poor or for the well-to-do. The promoters put matters right with the proper people, and all the rest had to suffer and manage as best they might. This is one instance out of many. The Pittsburg riots, which occasioned such a “scare” throughout America, were by no means without cause. Here a great corporation treated its men without the slightest consideration. At first the sympathy of many, perhaps of the majority, of the well-to-do people in Pittsburg, was with the strikers. Afterwards, when the rowdy part of the population took advantage of the original dispute to burn and pillage not only in Pittsburg but in Baltimore and elsewhere, matters took a different turn. Yet even as it was, an official report of the whole affair contains the observation that railway directors would learn from these circumstances not to treat their servants as if they were mere locomotives. The arbitrariness of the proceedings of some of the companies towards their own servants is indeed only equalled by the shameful way in which, whenever they can safely do so, they treat the public. As a result there is a bitterness of feeling which may yet show itself in a still more awkward shape.

In the same way the housing of the working classes in the great eastern cities is infamously bad. New York is worse in this respect than London or Glasgow. Yet nothing whatever is done to remedy this evil, and the rents are excessively high. Wherever, too, there is no combination among the working class every effort is made to decrease wages and increase the hours of work. The miserable condition of the seamstresses and shirt-makers of New York was exposed not long since in Harper’s Magazine. Nothing that has ever been told of the state of a similar class in London has been more distressing. In New York, as in London, no attempt is made to relieve these poor people, and the operations of the “sweater” continue unchecked. During a period of depression these and other drawbacks to the social system in large towns force themselves into prominence, and the socialist organisations in Pittsburg and Philadelphia, as well as in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, gained ground rapidly between 1875 and 1878. At the same time the increase of tramps was so extraordinary – there were no fewer than 3,000,000 such wayfarers at the worst period – that all the most stringent, I had almost said ferocious, enactments against vagrants to be found in our statute book were revived and put in force. In some States they are the law to-day. Thus below the surface of American politics are grave difficulties, and such a party as that which sprang up in favour of the rights of labour would have something to say for itself if organized aright and on sound principles. Now, however, that a general rebound of prosperity has come these troubles are forgotten, the working-men earning good wages are contented, the question of their dwellings is left to a more convenient season, and all that is to be thought of is the universal “boom.” When the reaction comes again, it may come it is to be feared with redoubled force, and. America of the east is by no means safe from far more formidable agitations than that which Kearney’s name is associated with in California. As to any moral restraint upon the money-getting class, that unfortunately is practically non-existent in the larger circle of operations. Nowhere is more honest hard work done than in America, nowhere is more business transacted among ordinary men on mere verbal contract, but nowhere assuredly is a man who has made a large sum of money by nefarious means so quickly forgiven.

Now it so happened that in California, quite apart from the Chinese grievance, nearly all the dictatorial and corrupt features of the worst capitalism of the Eastern States appeared in their worst shape. Moreover, the people were less inclined to submit to them. Here, too, I may say, by way of parenthesis, that it is impossible to pass through any of the Western mining States without being utterly shocked at the complete indifference of greed for gain not only to the welfare of future but even of present inhabitants. Forests are swept away for railway sleepers, timbers for mines and fuel, as if the trees were so much valueless brushwood. Mountain side after mountain side is swept completely bare. It is miserable to see one vast array of stumps where but now stood magnificent timber. Nothing is planted in place of what is destroyed, and the whole landscape is spoilt. As a result the climate is too often changed, streams, instead of flowing with tolerable evenness, alternate between a rivulet and a flood. It is nobody’s business, and even now the people are beginning to feel the effects of such recklessness, which still goes on unchecked. What has been done is almost incredible. The action of the hydraulic mining companies in particular is most baneful. You see a magnificent mountain valley completely flooded with water, here and there perhaps the tops of some trees of exceptional height showing above the surface. A vast dam has been built just below, and the water thus accumulated is used merely to wash down masses of sand which contain a few cents’ worth of free gold to the cubic yard. So far only a fine valley has been spoiled and a splendid forest ruined, but now far more mischief is done. The stuff thus washed down goes into the streams and chokes them up, flooding the country below and even blocking up part of San Francisco harbour with the debris. A greater curse to a country than this hydraulic gold washing could scarcely be. The farmers complain, San Francisco complains, and yet such is the influence of the capitalists who control these gold properties that even yet nothing has been done to check them. Such instances of the supreme selfishness of the money-getting class, who seem to settle down upon a country and ruin it in their haste to be rich, with as little regard for the future as a flight of locusts descending upon the farmer’s land, give one a feeling of disgust at the idea of a whole community falling into the grip of men who care for nothing in the world but the rights of capital to increase itself no matter at what cost to others.

And this is precisely what befell the Californians, and they have served as a sort of illustration of how far it can go. Isolated in some degree from other States, the whole process can be more easily traced. Formerly, California was the best place possible for a man who wanted to make his way in the world no matter what he set to work at. A miner would see Paris, the American paradise, at the top of the shaft even when he was, in their parlance, “flat broke.” There was a sort of general rough equality which went through all business; for the man who was down to-day might be up to-morrow, and depression was unknown. Within the last few years, however, has been witnessed a growth of wealth and a concentration of capital which is probably unequalled in any other portion of America. The story of the four Irishmen, Mackey, Flood, O’Brien, and Fair, reads like a romance. In effect they achieved their enormous fortune because they acted in concert and played a game with the Comstock mines against the rest of the community. From the time when, by artful manipulation, they secured the control of the Hale and Norcross mine, until they became the possessors of enormous wealth in mines, money, and land, their one idea was to pile up money. Of poor education and little refinement, there was nothing to gild the dirty transactions of which they or others might be guilty. We here at home are at least accustomed for the most part to be mulcted by men of some culture. The class which controls the whole of one branch of the Legislature and seats so many members in the other has at any rate acquired or inherited some dexterity in its methods of living upon the fruits of other men’s labour. But Californian aristocracy is aristocracy in the rough, and its way of managing legislatures is, to say the least of it, primitive or Walpolian. They buy them outright. The whole State may be said to be in the hands of eight men, who buy the representatives to do what they want. From the Central Pacific Railroad downwards the people are crushed by a gang of unscrupulous monopolists, who laugh outright at the idea that universal suffrage can send up legislators whom they cannot control.

An illustration of how these railway operations are may be taken from a little further east. Jay Gould practically owns and controls the whole of the Union Pacific Railroad. This line was built to a very great extent with public money and out of the proceeds of enormous land grants. But the very last point which is considered is the public interest. Rates are put up to the very highest point which the farmers and miners along the road can possibly stand; special calculations are made in particular cases so that goods cannot be shipped to a profit from San Francisco; but as that is the only competition to be found, and the Central Pacific is a monopoly too, the whole country from Omaha to San Francisco may be said to be really under the thumb of this railway magnate. For he has contrived in one way or another to obtain control of all or nearly all the trunk roads; and in some instances the tyranny exercised is beyond belief. Thus a railroad was planned and laid out by one company, and the stations being “located,” the people who intended to settle on the line of the road made their townships at the stopping points, paying extra prices for the town lots. The other portion of the road, however, after a fight for the possession of a certain caņon, fell into the hands of the Union Pacific Railroad, who straightway changed every allotment and station, forcing the poor people to abandon their houses and pay over again. Similar tricks have been played elsewhere.

Nor must it be forgotten that enormous tracts of land were taken up by local speculators, who, to use an expressive Australian phrase, “picked out the eyes of the country,” and held on for a high price, refusing to let or lease or to sell at a reasonable figure. These lands thus taken were let off at a low taxation by friends of the purchasers in the legislature.

This being the state of affairs, there arose in California that Kearney agitation which in one shape or another will be renewed throughout the Union if in the next period of distress capitalists attempt as they did last time to throw the entire loss upon the labourer. Undoubtedly Kearneyism had its origin in the Pittsburg riotings, but it has in its turn spread to the East. Kearney was put down as a mere rough brutal self-seeker. This he was not altogether, and among his supporters were numbered many who had a great deal to lose. He could not possibly have carried the charges he did otherwise. There was never any real danger of mob violence winning the day. It was not even a socialistic movement. But it was a vehement and in many respects an injudicious protest against the unscrupulous action of suddenly raised men as well as against the Chinese who were coming in at the time.

The wealthy are more ready to use harsh measures against the poor than the latter are to strike and combine against the wealthy. Consequently, to quote an American writer who has specially studied this movement[4]

“The danger to social order is not a direct one. The force that would rally at any open assault upon it have with us overwhelming strength. The real danger comes through forms of legality and methods of government. Tweed and his little band would have been lodged in jail in a trice had they directly attempted their robberies; yet Tweed and his handful for years levied at their will upon the wealth of New York, and flaunted their spoils in all men’s eyes.”

And again –

“Government with us grows in weight and importance; but this is not a Conservative force when its increasing powers and emoluments are to be grasped by whoever can best organize corruption or rouse passion. We have great and increasing accumulations of wealth; capital is becoming organized in greater and greater masses, and the railroad company dwarfs the State. But these are not forces of stability. Perhaps these great combinations are forced into politics in self-defence. But however they get there, their effort is but to demoralise and corrupt – to reward and bring to political leadership the unscrupulous. And then great corporations themselves are but the prize and prey of adventurers, the fattening-places of unscrupulous rings. Given universal suffrage; a vague bitter feeling of discontent on the one side and of insecurity on the other; unscrupulous politicians who may ride into force by exciting hopes and fears; class jealousies and class antipathies; great moneyed interests working through all classes with utter selfishness; a general disgust with political methods and feeling of practical political impotence, producing indifference and recklessness on the part of the great mass of voters – and any accident may start a series of the most dangerous actions and reactions.”

I do not think any careful observer can doubt that these sentences set forth only too correctly the dangers which lie before the American nation. The utter unspeakable selfishness of corporations and rings is proverbial; and the danger of treating men like locomotives really does not occur to their managers until too late. Who can summon up one iota of admiration or liking for the great handlers of capital? Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Mackay, and the rest of them, have but one faculty, and that not of a very high order. In the great and increasing influence of such people is to be seen the worst side of American life. Political equality is valuable enough, but when this is counterbalanced by inordinate wealth and an extraordinary extension of corruption, by no means confined to the Western States, the rights of the many are apt to be sacrificed altogether by their own representatives.[5]

Meanwhile it is worthy of note that although America has not the slightest reason to fear invasion from any quarter whatever, the inclination for drill is greatly on the increase. No doubt the regular army is absurdly small even taking account of the fact that there are only Indians to fight or Mexicans to keep in order. But the amount of military training that goes on in one way or another is astonishing for a purely industrial community. For this is by no means confined to those who take part in processions or for other purposes of political display. From one end of the country to the other a large proportion of all classes are devoting themselves to regular drill, and rifle-shooting at a target is becoming a popular pastime. In England the militia and the volunteers are valuable, because invasion is or might be possible, but neither they nor the regular army possess such a magnificent building as the armoury of the 7th Regiment of New York, for which the land and a large sum of money were voted by the city. It is sometimes said that all this military spirit is due to the war; but that came to an end fifteen years ago and still this ardour for military exercise is on the increase. The poor citizens share it no less than the well-to-do. The thousands of working men who met on the Sand Lots at San Francisco were well armed and most of them more or less drilled, and the organizations in other cities are not behindhand. Whether it is fear of success of the mob which leads one side to drill so resolutely, and on the other hand a desperate hope on the part of the poorer classes that by preparing themselves beforehand they may be able to act better in concert at the next period of distress, it is impossible to say. But this voluntary militarisation in a country where to all appearance the people may calculate upon perpetual peace, and have quite enough in the industrial development of their enormous resources to occupy all their energies, is certainly singular enough. With such complete liberty as all possess, and the universal right to a fair hearing, it would indeed lead one almost to despair of human improvement if violence were resorted to to solve any political or social difficulty.

Of political difficulty there is at present little sign. But there was a general feeling that a narrow majority on either side at the late elections might have led to grave results. The old party lines, however, have now been broken up, and it remains to be seen how they will be reformed. State rights and Federal rights may conflict and do conflict a good deal; and the strenuous efforts made to nominate Grant at Chicago gave some sort of colour to the idea that an attempt at Imperialism was being made by the wirepullers of the Republican party. But the fear of the South as a disruptive agency has quite died out among the people, and it is quite possible that during the next few years the two principles of centralisation and decentralisation – the control of the Federal Government being exercised over what are manifestly general concerns, and the State being still allowed adequate freedom to give play to individual resource – may be satisfactorily harmonised. That more control is needed over the vagaries of State Legislatures few will be found to question. The reform of the Civil Service and the judicial bench, though quite as important as any political question, will probably be undertaken later. Though all Americans outside of the political rings freely acknowledge that the more democratic a community the greater the necessity for keeping the framework of administration clear of political and party warfare, and the judicial bench from popular influence or private chicane, the difficulty is which side shall begin the change of system. Neither wishes to incur the temporary unpopularity which a plain outspoken policy would, it is thought, entail. The tendency to “let things slide” is only too manifest in such matters.

But when all drawbacks are made the most of and all dangers discounted, the good most clearly over-balances the bad. There is no fair comparison between the condition of the mass of the people, either as regards food or education, in America and in England during ordinary times. The working class across the Atlantic is far better off. The mischiefs below the surface are common to our civilisation; the compensating advantages are, happily for America, peculiar to her. It is always possible in such circumstances that the growth of public spirit may counteract dangers before they come to a head, that the selfishness of the capitalists and the middle class may be controlled by the State in the interest of the bulk of the people.[6] Corruption in any case must gradually work its own cure. Education and the instinctive faculty for organization will do the rest. After every deduction the great central fact stands out clear, that a nation of 50,000,000 can pass through periods of extraordinary political excitement time after time with little or no disturbance; that they deliberately choose to follow the party which calls for universal sacrifice and general equality; that they absorb with little danger a less intelligent population, and are able to educate the bulk of the community up to a standard of patriotism which is nowise inferior to that which obtains in any old historic country. No privileged class is needed to keep up a traditional policy, no social subservience is thought necessary. There is no reason why Englishmen, with their glorious record of progress, should long envy the Americans any of their political advantages. That, however, notwithstanding caucuses and wirepullers, unscrupulous rings and corrupt legislators, we have a good deal to learn from them in the direction of political organization and general political knowledge can scarcely be questioned.


1. The spread of luxury in the United States is amazing at the present time. In every direction, in the decoration of houses, in the dress, in all departments of life, the amount of wealth which can be thrown away without being felt seems endless. In particular the display of diamonds is astonishing. Ladies go about at mid-day with them in their ears of the size of small filberts, and it is not uncommon to see a man of some refinement with one of equal dimensions in his shirt-front. It might have been thought that they would have gone out of fashion long since, if only on account of the class of people who likewise affect them. The New York rowdies glory in diamonds. Ten years ago I was in New York when one of these worthies, either Phil Haggerty or Philadelphia Bill, slew the other of the pair. Which shot which I am not quite clear, but one unquestionably died. The survivor was duly brought up for having caused his comrade’s death. This sort of thing being then rather new to me I went to the court where the proceedings were held. There I found myself surrounded by the best dressed lot of men I ever saw in a police-court or any other court in my life. Not one but was attired in the height of fashion and had a filbert-sized diamond in his shirt-front. I felt quite mean amid so distinguished a throng. The murderer, I remember, got off scot free, and looking through the report of the case the following morning in the papers I found words to this effect: – “The court was crowded from an early hour with nearly all the most notorious thieves and desperadoes in the city, who watched the case with the deepest interest.” These were my broad-cloth-begirt diamond-bespangled friends of high degree who so abashed me. But diamonds are still the rage none the less. Rowdyism, however, has been somewhat checked since then.

2. This will prove a serious matter in the future. These great wheat fields are being exhausted without any regard to the interests of the coming generation; and we who consume the food sweep the fertilising agents into the sea whilst our land goes out of cultivation in consequence of the competition. How far are we removed from the Patagonians after all?

3. The shameful outbreak against the Chinese at Denver serves to show that the feeling is ready to burst out at a moment’s notice. It is one of the best features in our colonial history that we have never allowed the pistol to get the upper hand as it has in the west of America. Yet rough fellows enough were collected in the Australian and New Zealand gold-fields, who would have been ready to use the revolver freely had the same indifference to murder been shown there as in America. Of late the feeling against the Chinese has been exceedingly bitter in Melbourne, but the authorities very soon showed that no such outrages would be permitted to pass without any punishment as in San Francisco. The different tone adopted in the north with reference to the Chinese from that toward the negroes is worth observing. Judge Tourgee’s books exposing the Ku-Klux terrorism or the white population in the Southern States had in all probability an effect upon the late elections. The wrongs of the Chinese might be written about till Doomsday without producing the slightest effect.

4. Mr. Henry George.

5. This little paper of course makes no pretence to give more than a very superficial view of such a question. The real source of all the mischief must be sought in our present system of unregulated capitalist production. Our dangers in England on that account are almost infinitely greater than those in the United States. In any case, California is cited merely as an illustration of a general tendency.

6. Full individual freedom leads in present economical conditions to monopoly; that monopoly speedily develops into oppression and tyranny; and then the common sense of society as a whole has to step in to correct the mischief which has been allowed to spring up. We have evidence enough of this close at home to refute the prettiest theories of individualism without going farther afield.