Clement M. Hammond, “Then and Now” (1884)

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X.

THE BALLOT THE SHIELD OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY ROBBERS.

Boston, November 22, 2084.

My Dear Louise:

On two or three occasions since my last letter was written Mr. De Demain has lectured me on the evils of the political system in vogue in your time. He gives as an illustration the fact that a few hundred voters in New York in the presidential election of 1884 threw the government of the country into the hands of the Democratic party,—not in reality a very serious matter, he says, but very much against the wishes of several millions of people.

In the course of our conversation I asked him the following question, which formed the basis for quite a long discussion:

“You believe, do you not, that the wealthy and so-called superior classes of the United States in the nineteenth century controlled in great measure the government of the country?”

“Yes,” replied Mr. De Demain, “I think that history pretty conclusively proves that.”

“But, two weeks ago, in a conversation you had with me, you stated that one of the faults of that government was the power given men without money to tax those who were rich. You called it robbery, I think.”

“Yes, it was a fault of the government, and was robbery—of the robbers. The wealthy and successful robbers were shrewd men. They gave the poor fellows who were constantly being robbed the ballot, and told them what a big thing it was, and what a splendid generosity it displayed on the part of the ‘superior’ classes. The poor dupes of working men were told in splendid oratorical efforts and brilliant grammatical articles that the great remedy for all the ills of the poor man was in his hands. When there was anything he did not like, he had only to trust in the ballot. He had the privilege of voting for any man or any measure he cared for. This looked on the face of it like a grand thing. The poor workers of the old world looked across on this side and heard the words of these fine-spoken gentlemen, and they came over to live in a country where they had only to ask for a thing to have it. For a great many years the ballot worked beautifully—for the superior classes. But the workers kept on digging in the earth and sowing seed, and reaping the harvest. You people had a big new country of vast resources, and it is not strange that you got rich,—that is, that the country got rich. The only strange thing about it was that the people didn’t get richer. For many years the laborers thought themselves pretty well-to-do. They—a good many of them—built themselves little houses and cleared up little farms, and they blessed the ballot-box and the wise statesmen who formed laws for such a beautiful country. But after a time they began to think it very strange that they didn’t get any richer, while the country got to be more and more wealthy every day. Some began to suspect that, after all, it was not so much the ballot-box as it was their own industry and the native wealth of the new country that made it possible to own little houses and farms. And some even suspected that the good order of the country was not so much due to the fine system of government as it was to their own individual good behavior. Later on they began to think that perhaps, after all, the ballot-box, instead of making them well-to-do, was making them poorer and making those who talked so much about its wonderful power richer.

“I said, I know, that it was robbery for the poor to tax the rich; this was one evil. But the robbery by ballot was not all on one side, and even if it had been all on the side of the poor, the injustice would not have been great, although the principle would have been wrong. It was this wrong principle that I wished to present to you.

“This ballot privilege was merely a sop thrown from the hand of the rich to the poor in order that sharp wits might keep in subjugation strong numbers.

“This robbing of the rich by the poor by means of taxation was more than offset by the robbing of the poor by the rich by the same means. The poor workers were never the ones who concocted the schemes of taxation; it was always the rich robbers with the sharp wits. The few rich robbers individually laid schemes to plunder each other and cut each other’s throats. They found time enough, while the workers were preparing their food and clothes and shelter and pretty trinkets, to sharpen their wits and lay schemes. The ballot in the hands of the workers was a very good means whereby the rich and superior individuals could gain advantage over other rich and superior individuals. At the same time the ballots kept the general government in its regular course so that it was an easy matter for all rich individuals to rob the poor. Back in the earlier ages princes and kings gave their subjects bows and arrows and swords and small ships and sent them out to fight each other. The stronger in battle won honor for their king and members of his household, and for the same plundered the country of the weaker. They, themselves, the subjects, mostly got killed. Many of the survivors got their heads cut off when they returned, and the remainder didn’t get much of anything. Things were a little changed in your time. Names for things were changed principally. Instead of kings and princes were the wealthy classes, the superior classes, the statesmen, and instead of bows and arrows and swords ballots were used. The honor and plunder went the same way. The wielders of the ballots didn’t get killed, but they didn’t get anything else. Some of them, perhaps, did get two or three dollars or a few drinks of cheap gin for their services, but they got nothing more,—no honor, no part of the plunder.”

“But,” said I, “you must acknowledge that the people had the power to use the ballot as they pleased.”

“Not exactly. There were a good many restrictions. There was a tax and registration, and deputy marshals, and sharp-eyed employers, and supervisors, and several other minor things. But the main thing was that the people did not know how to use the ballot to their own advantage. If they had, they would have balloted the ballot out of existence, and with it the government, the privileged classes, privileged monopolies, a privileged currency, subsidized railroads, and the thousand and one things by means of which they were daily being robbed. The people were dupes. If the keen-witted robbers had not understood this, the ballot would never have been put into the hands of the workers. It certainly took a more steady hand, a finer, sharper, clearer brain, to control a people by means of the ballot than it did by means of the sword, but it was done just as effectually. If Alexander III and his princes and advisers had been smart enough, they could have ruled Russia just as firmly with the ballot in the hands of the people.”

What do you think of Mr. De Domain’s arguments?

Josephine.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2166 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.