On the Nature of Politics

Title: On the Nature of Politics

Date: May 12, 1915

Location: Boston, MA

Context: Speech at the Algonquin Club on politics, responsibility and  “that office holding is the incidental, but the standard of citizenship is the essential” and associated implications

Politics is not an end, but a means. It is not a product, but a process. It is the art of government. Like other values it has its counterfeits. So much emphasis has been put upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service. The Greek derivation shows the nobler purpose. Politikos means city-rearing, state-craft. And when we remember that city also meant civilization, the spurious presentment, mean and sordid, drops away and the real figure of the politician, dignified and honorable, a minister to civilization, author and finisher of government, is revealed in its true and dignified proportions.

There is always something about genius that is indefinable, mysterious, perhaps to its possessor most of all. It has been the product of rude surroundings no less than of the most cultured environment, want and neglect have sometimes nourished it, abundance and care have failed to produce it. Why some succeed in public life and others fail would be as difficult to tell as why some succeed or fail in other activities. Very few men in America have started out with any fixed idea of entering public life, fewer still would admit having such an idea. It was said of Chief Justice Waite, of the United States Supreme Court, being asked when a youth what he proposed to do when a man, he replied, he had not yet decided whether to be President or Chief Justice. This may be in part due to a general profession of holding to the principle of Benjamin Franklin that office should neither be sought nor refused and in part to the American idea that the people choose their own officers so that public service is not optional. In other countries this is not so. For centuries some seats in the British Parliament were controlled and probably sold as were commissions in the army, but that has never been the case here. A certain Congressman, however, on arriving at Washington was asked by an old friend how he happened to be elected. He replied that he was not elected, but appointed. It is worth while noting that the boss who was then supposed to hold the power of appointment in that district has since been driven from power, but the Congressman, though he was defeated when his party was lately divided, has been reelected. All of which suggests that the boss did not appoint in the first instance, but was merely well enough informed to see what the people wanted before they had formulated their own opinions and desires. It was said of McKinley that he could tell what Congress would do on a certain measure before the men in Congress themselves knew what their decision was to be. Cannon has said of McKinley that his ear was so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers. But the fact remains that office brokerage is here held in reprehensive scorn and professional office seeking in contempt. Every native born American, however, is potentially a President, and it must always be remembered that the obligation to serve the State is forever binding upon all, although office is the gift of the people.

Of course these considerations relate not to appointive places like the Judiciary, Commissionerships, clerical positions and like places, but to the more important elective offices. Another reason why political life of this nature is not chosen as a career is that it does not pay. Nearly all offices of this class are held at a financial sacrifice, not merely that the holder could earn more at some other occupation, but that the salary of the office does not maintain the holder of the office. It is but recently that Parliament has paid a salary to its members. In years gone by the United States Senate has been rather marked for its number of rich men. Few prominent members of Congress are dependent on their salary, which is but another way of saying that in Washington Senators and Representatives need more than their official salaries to become most effective. It is a consolation to be able to state that this is not the condition of members of the Massachusetts General Court. There, ability and character come very near to being the sole requirements for success. Although some men have seen service in our legislature of nearly twenty years, to the great benefit of the Commonwealth, no one would choose that for a career and these men doubtless look on it only as an avocation.

For these reasons we have no profession of politics or of public life in the sense that we have a profession of law and medicine and other learned callings. We have men who have spent many years in office, but it would be difficult to find one outside the limitations noted who would refer to that as his business, occupation, or profession.

The inexperienced are prone to hold an erroneous idea of public life and its methods. Not long ago I listened to a joint debate in a prominent preparatory school. Each side took it for granted that public men were influenced only by improper motives and that officials of the government were seeking only their own gain and advantage with out regard to the welfare of the people. Such a presumption has no foundation in fact. There are dishonest men in public office. There are quacks, shysters, and charlatans among doctors, lawyers, and clergy, but they are not representative of their professions nor indicative of their methods. Our public men, as a class, are inspired by honorable and patriotic motives, desirous only of a faithful execution of their trust from the executive and legislative branches of the States and Nation down to the executives of our towns, who bear the dignified and significant title of selectmen. Public men must expect criticism and be prepared to endure false charges from their opponents. It is a matter of no great concern to them. But public confidence in government is a matter of great concern. It cannot be maintained in the face of such opinions as I have mentioned. It is necessary to differentiate between partisan assertions and actual conditions. It is necessary to recognize worth as well as to condemn graft. No system of government can stand that lacks public confidence and no progress can be made on the assumption of a false premise. Public administration is honest and sound and public business is transacted on a higher plane than private business.

There is no difficulty for men in college to understand elections and government. They have all had experience in it. The same motives that operate in the choice of class officers operate in choosing officers for the Commonwealth. Here men are soon estimated at their true worth. Here places of trust are conferred and administered as they will be in later years. The scale is smaller, the opportunities are less, conditions are more artificial, but the principles are the same. Of course the present estimate is not the ultimate. There are men here who appear important that will not appear so in years to come. There are men who seem insignificant now who will develop at a later day. But the motive which leads to elections here leads to elections in the State.

Is there any especial obligation on the part of college bred men to be candidates for public office? I do not think so. It is said that although college graduates constitute but one per cent of the population, they hold about fifty per cent of the public offices, so that this question seems to take care of itself. But I do not feel that there is any more obligation to run for office than there is to become a banker, a merchant, a teacher, or enter any other special occupation. As indicated, some men have a particular aptitude in this direction and some have none. Of course experience counts here as in any other human activity, and all experience worth the name is the result of application, of time and thought and study and practice. If the individual finds he has liking and capacity for this work, he will involuntarily find himself engaged in it. There is no catalogue of such capacity. One man gets results in one way, another in another. But in general only the man of broad sympathy and deep understanding of his fellow men can meet with much success.

What I have said relates to the somewhat narrow field of office holding. This is really a small part of any system. H James Bryce tells us that we have a government of public opinion. That is growing to be more and more true of the governments of the entire world. The first care of despotism seems to be to control the school and the press. Where the mind is free it turns not to force but to reason for the source of authority. Men submit to a government of force as we are doing now when they believe it is necessary for their security, necessary to protect them from the imposition of force from without. This is probably the main motive of the German people. They have been taught that their only protection lay in the support of a military despotism. Rightly or wrongly they have believed this and believing have submitted to what they suppose their only means of security. They have been governed accordingly. Germany is still feudal. This leads to the larger and all important field of politics. Here we soon see that office holding is the incidental, but the standard of citizenship is the essential. Government does rest upon the opinions of men. Its results rest on their actions. This makes every man a politician whether he will or no. This lays the burden on us all. Men who have had the advantages of liberal culture ought to be the leaders in maintaining the standards of citizenship. Unless they can and do accomplish this result education is a failure. Greatly have they been taught, greatly must they teach. The power to think is the most practical thing in the world. It is not and cannot be cloistered from politics.

We Live under a republican form of government. We need forever to remember that representative government does represent. A careless, indifferent representative is the result of a careless, indifferent electorate. The people who start to elect a man to get what he can for his district will probably find they have elected a man who will get what he can for himself. A body will keep on its course for a time after the What I have said relates to the some what narrow field of office holding. This is really a small part of the American system or of any system. James Bryce tells us that moving impulse ceases by reason of its momentum. The men who founded our government had fought and thought mightily on the relationship of man to his government. Our institutions would go for a time under the momentum they gave. But we should be deluded if we supposed they can be maintained without more of the same stern sacrifice offered in perpetuity. Government is not an edifice that the founders turn over to posterity all completed. It is an institution, like a university which fails unless the process of education continues.

The State is not founded on selfishness. It cannot maintain itself by the offer of material rewards. It is the opportunity for service. There has of late been held out the hope that government could by legislation remove from the individual the need of effort. The managers of industries have seemed to think that their difficulties could be removed and prosperity ensured by changing the laws. The employee has been led to believe that his condition could be made easy by the same method. When industries can be carried on without any struggle, their results will be worthless, and when wages can be secured without any effort they will have no purchasing value. In the end the value of the product will be measured by the amount of effort necessary to secure it. Our late Dr. Garman recognized this limitation in one of his lectures where he says:

” Critics have noticed three stages in the development of human civilization
First: the let alone policy; every man to look out for number one. This is the age of selfishness. Second: the opposite pole of thinking; every man to do somebody’s else work for him. This is the dry rot of sentimentality that feeds tramps and enacts poor laws such as excite the indignation of Herbert Spencer. But the third stage is represented by our formula: every man must render and receive the best possible service, except in the case of inequality, and there the strong must help the weak to help them selves; only on this condition is help given. This is the true interpretation of the life of Christ. On the first basis He would have remained in heaven and let the earth take care of itself. On the second basis He would have come to earth with his hands full of gold and silver treasures satisfying every want that unfortunate humanity could have devised. But on the third basis He comes to earth in the form of a servant who is at the same time a master commanding his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; it is sovereignty through service as opposed to slavery through service. He refuses to make the world wealthy, but He offers to help them make themselves wealthy with true riches which shall be a hundred-fold more, even in this life, than that which was offered them by any former system.”

This applies to political life no less than to industrial life. We live under the fairest government on earth. But it is not self sustaining. Nor is that all. There are selfishness and injustice and evil in the world. More than that, these forces are never at rest. Some desire to use the processes of government for their own ends. Some desire to destroy the authority of government altogether. Our institutions are predicated on the rights and the corresponding duties, on the worth, of the individual. It is to him that we must look for safety. We may need new charters, new constitutions and new laws at times. We must always have an alert and interested citizenship. We have no dependence but the individual. New charters cannot save us. They may appear to help but the chances are that the beneficial results obtained result from an increased interest aroused by discussing changes. Laws do not make reforms, reforms make laws. We cannot look to government. We must look to ourselves. We must stand not in the expectation of a reward but with a desire to serve. There will come out of government exactly what is put into it. Society gets about what it deserves. It is the part of educated men to know and recognize these principles and influences and knowing them to inform and warn their fellow countrymen. Politics is the process of action in public affairs. It is personal, it is individual, and nothing more. Destiny is in you.

Calvin Coolidge, Have Faith in Massachusetts: A Collection of Speeches and Messages, 2nd ed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919


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