Leonard Woolsey Bacon.

Four lost legacies of the early New England civil polity: I. The old colony referendum. II. The principle of majority government. III. Sound license legislation. IV. The ideal of citizenship online

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Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconFour lost legacies of the early New England civil polity: I. The old colony referendum. II. The principle of majority government. III. Sound license legislation. IV. The ideal of citizenship → online text (page 1 of 2)
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I. The Old Colony Referendum.

II. The Principle of Majority Government.

III. Sound License Legislation.

IV. The Ideal of Citizenship.




Pronounced before several Historical Societies of Massachusetts and


Reprinted from tne Transactions of the New London County Historical Society.







I. The Old Colony Referendum.

II. The Principle of Majority Government.

III. Sound License Legislation.

IV. The Ideal of Citizenship.




Pronounced before several Historical Societies of Massachusetts and


Reprinted from the Transactions of the New London County Historical Society.









Read before the New London County Historical Society at its Mid-
Winter Meeting, in Norwich, January 22, 1906.


I invite you to follow me in some studies in the early political
history of New England which have, as I conceive, more than an
antiquarian interest for us in this later generation and vastly expanded
country. I am safe in assuming that the spirit of this Historical
Society will not be wholly out of sympathy with my contention that
the prodigious changes which these nearly three centuries have
brought to pass in our political methods and political principles have
not been in all cases, in the direction of progress and improvement.
I make bold, in the present paper, to point out four characteristics of
the polity of the Founders of New England from which we have de-
parted, to the serious detriment of the republic.

I. The first of these is what may properly be called The Old
Colony Referendum. There is a certain amount of mild agitation
going on in our day, on the part of some doctrinaire publicists, in
favor of embodying "the referendum" in our state constitutions; by
which is meant the adoption of a somewhat clumsy contrivance of
certain Swiss political experimenters, by which on the demand of a
prescribed number of voters, any bill passed by the Congress of that
republic is submitted to popular assent or veto. It happened to me to be
a resident of Switzerland at the time when this constitutional provision
went into effect ; and from what I then observed, and from what I have
since learned, I do not find it to be a particularly valuable working provi-
sion not that it does not work well, but that it does not do very much



work of any quality. A far simpler and more effective provision,
worthy, for the wisdom of it, to have survived to our day and to have
been imitated in all the constitution-making States, was that require-
ment in the fundamental law of little Plymouth, that no bill should
become a law (emergencies excepted) unless it had lain over from one
legislature to the next. The lapse of this most salutary provision is
not the least of the losses that civilization suffered in the merger of
the little Old Colony with its overshadowing neighbor of the Bay. As
compared with the cumbrous piece of mechanism of the Swiss pub-
licists, by which some bills might, if citizens enough should take the
trouble to combine, be subjected to a popular vote, it was a simple,
automatic general referendum, by which all bills were brought under
the purview of the body of citizens. No wiser safeguard has since
been devised against the malfeasance of representative bodies. If
it could be restored to our State constitutions in some such form as
this ; that unless passed by a two-thirds vote (this exception would pro-
vide for all real cases of urgency) no bill should become a law unless
read a second time in one legislature and adopted by the next legisla-
ture, think what we should gain by it. To begin with, it would tend
to reduce the enormous annual output of new legislation -which is
recognized in all our states as one of the nuisances incident to popu-
lar government. It would certainly mitigate in some measure the ex-
temporaneous crudity of it, which often requires each new legislature
to spend part of its time in repealing the work of its predecessor. It
would hold the legislature in salutary fear, not only of the governor and
his veto, but of the people. Distinctly bad legislation the job bills,
the grab bills, the sneak bills, the snap bills if not impossible, would
become immensely more difficult ; and that public enemy, the organ-
ized lobby, would find its power suddenly curtailed. What an annual
anxiety it would lift from a considerable part of the people ! Great
corporations and great public interests the railroad companies, the
insurance companies, the trusts, the temperance interest, the liquor
interest, the Sunday interest, the anti-Sunday interest, and whatever
else there is that has hopes or fears from legislation would no longer
be under the expensive necessity of maintaining their pickets at the


State-house to give warning against surprises and ward them off by
public pressure or private persuasion. The occupation of the
heeler and striker, if not abolished, would become a much less paying
business than it is now generally understood to be. But while cor-
ruptionists would be discouraged and disgusted, honest citizens would
come to their rights. This remanding to the people, so damaging to
bad or doubtful projects, would be simply invigorating to such as
should have merit enough to bear the sunlight and the breeze of
protracted public discussion.

The restoration of the Old Colony Referendum would have even
a more beneficent result in the regeneration of State politics. As
things now are, our State elections deal mainly with the popularity
or the paltry personal ambitions of Jones or Brown or Smith, or,
worse than that, with matters of national party politics with which
State officers have no more to do than with Mr. Joe Chamberlain's
colonial schemes. In most States a state election is not much more
than a game to bet on, like a horse-trot or a college foot-ball match.
Under the Old Colony Referendum, the pending questions of State
and local policy laid over from the last legislature would be distinct,
definite issues before the people, inviting the study of intelligent citi-
zens, and provoking debate in every town meeting and every voting
precinct. Every State electoral campaign would be a "campaign of
education." I do not mean thatthe measures would be voted on directly
by the people; that is the awkward Swiss way. Neither would they
be the subject of formal instruction to the representative from his con-
stituents, which was the French Jacobin way. But these measures
would be the points* on which candidates would be questioned, and
on which elections would turn. Can any reform be suggested which
would have a more healthful tendency to accomplish that great poli-
tical desideratum, the breaking up of the vicious connection between
town and State affairs on the one hand, and national parties on the
other hand, under which citizens are every year clamorously solicited
to subordinate their political home duties to some supposed necessity
of. supporting the national administration or of condemning it?

This, remember, was a characteristic feature of the fundamental


law of " the Old Colony " of little Plymouth. I am no blind bigot in
my admiration of the Pilgrims. I am not prepared to admit that the
Separatism of Plymouth was a higher and truer churchmanship
than the Nationalism of Salem and Boston. But I am struck with
wonder at the high wisdom of the Pilgrims in their founding of the
civil state. There were many bold and original strokes of political
reform delivered in those early New England days. There was the
splendid coup d'etat of the Bay colonists in bringing their charter
across the seas and so creating an autonomous state. There was the
great law reform of the New Haven men, by which they dropped over-
board, as they sailed, the precedents of English law common law,
statute law and canon law and gave their republic a fresh start
from the Pentateuch, resolving, as the historian Knickerbocker puts
it, to be governed by the laws of God until they had time to make
better for themselves. There was the glory of the Connecticut colo-
nists, framing, with prophetic wisdom, the first written constitution of
government in human history. And high over these is the excelling
glory of the Pilgrims, that they did nothing of the kind, but just
let their feeble republic alone to grow into shape of itself, taking
such body as it should please God to give. Their grand deeds were
well matched by the grandeur of their not doing. Here we find one of
those contrasts that the muse of history delights in. On the one
hand are these thoughtful men in the poverty of Plymouth, living all
in the future, with every temptation to great schemes and visionary
projects, patiently waiting year by year for the slow strokes of Divine
Providence to fashion their little State into the mould of a world-wide
empire; and on the other hand, fifty years later, beyond the sea, the
greatest philosopher and the smartest politician in all England, John
Locke and Lord Shaftesbury, sitting in the golden sunshine of a
monarch's favor, are putting their sagacious heads together to produce
a constitution for the Carolinas that has been the laughing stock of
history from that day to this.

II. By far the most important and most original contribution of
early New England to the science of polity was the principle of Ma-
jority Government. We have lost it now and taken instead the princi-


pie of Government by Plurality, that is, ordinarily, Government by
Minorities. We have traded off our hereditary birthright, and gotten
in exchange for it a mess of pottage, and an ill-smelling and unsavory
mess at that. How much we have lost, what intolerable mischiefs we
have invited upon ourselves, by thus abandoning the wise usage of
our fathers, we have had only a limited means of proving in our own
experience ; for it is only within the memory of this generation that
this invaluable muniment of freedom has been thrown away in Massa-
chusetts, and still more' lately in Connecticut. But we have only to look
beyond the western boundary line, to where the plurality system, in the
State and City of New York, has for generations had its perfect work,
to see what abuses it is capable of producing. In New York City, in
almost every vigorously contested election for many years, until this
last year, it has been demonstrated that the majority of the citizens
were opposed to the domination of Tammany Hall; nevertheless,
with only occasional and brief interruptions, Tammany has held the
domination from year to year and from decade to decade. Sometimes
its domination has been put in serious jeopardy. In 1886 a powerful
movement to overthrow it drove the Tammany wigwam to the desper-
ate expedient of nominating an honest man (Mr. Hewitt) for Mayor.
When a corrupt party nominates an honest man, it is a sign of woe
indeed. Everything portended a Waterloo defeat for Tammany, for
the opposition of good citizens was solid. The only hope of the
thieves lay in dividing the opposition. Just then a brilliant and en-
thusiastic young Republican was induced no doubt by the best of
motives to put himself at the head of a "straight " Republican ticket ;
and Tammany was saved ! The vote against Tammany was, in round
numbers, 130,000, to 90,000 in its favor. But the patriotic young Re-
publican had succeeded in splitting the opposition vote nearly in the
middle, and Tammany, condemned by a hostile majority of nearly
40,000, held control of the great city, saved, in its hour of peril, by the
sagacious management of Mr. Croker, aided by the undoubtedly con-
scientious partizanship, I regret to say, of Mr. Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1897 came an even more momentous crisis, which was to decide
the fate not only of New York, but of greater New York, and not for


a year only, but for four years. The sole question before the people
was : Shall a notoriously corrupt ring, managed by a coarse, odious,
and generally detested boss, be placed in almost absolute control of
the immense interests of the great metropolis? The people declared,
by a majority of 58,000, We will not have this gang to rule over us
Whereupon the defeated party mounted gaily to the box, gripped the
reins and the whip, and every brothel and gambling hell in the city
was illuminated in honor of the triumph of the minority. The con-
scientious politician who saved Tammany this time by dividing the
opposition in favor of a straight Republican ticket was General Tracy,
once Secretary of the Navy. If it had not been Tracy, it would have
been some one else. Mr. Croker rarely had any difficulty in finding a
man, and a good man no other kind will answer the purpose to
render him this indispensable service. At this election, there were not
only two anti-Tammany candidates in the field, but three, all good
men excellent men ; the more of them there were, and the better they
were, the more Tammany was pleased. Intelligent citizens were at a
loss which of the three to vote for, and many saw no use of voting at
all in so hopeless a case. It was an easy walk-over for Tammany.
Suppose the three opposition parties to be about equal to each other,
and the stayers at home who saw no use in voting at all to be another
equal share, Tammany had only to cast one-fifth of the votes plus one,
and the remaining four-fifths minus one were of no avail. By virtue
(if it is proper to speak of virtue in this connection) of a good working
minority, the gang of thieves came legally and constitutionally into
possession of the city government for the next four years.

Since then we have been witnessing twice over the agonizing pe-
riodical anxiety of good citizens of New York over the always doubt-
ful question, can we manage to fuse together the various elements of
opposition to the enemies of society ? On so risky a question depends
the control, for good or evil, of so many millions of people, and so
many thousand millions of property !

Now suppose the charter of Greater New York had been framed
in accordance with the old New England principle of majority govern-
ment, with this provision, that no officer should be held to be elected


unless receiving a majority of all votes cast, supplemented by this
other provision that, failing a majority for any candidate on the first
ballot, the matter should go back to the people within eight days, to
choose between the two highest candidates; how would these pro-
visions operate ?

1. They would begin operating long before election day. Months
before, there would be searchings of heart among all bosses of all
parties. The comfortable understanding heretofore subsisting be-
tween the two leading party leaders, that whichever way the election
goes, they two are, between them, sure of the spoils, is thenceforth
impossible ; the people have a veto on them both. The caucus would
still assemble, as it ought to; but it would be overshadowed by the
chilling but salutary consciousness that its action was liable to be; re-
versed at the polls by the free and unembarrassed action of the bolter
and the kicker. It would have to nominate in such a way as to pre-
vent disaffection and propitiate confidence. An objectionable candi-
date on any ticket might be blackballed by the men of his own party,
without thereby turning over the election to the opposite party. A
corrupt party would not be able to hold together its own men.

2. As election day approached, there would be no distressing
anxiety among good citizens as to whether this man, or that, or the
other, would be most likely to unite all the friends of good govern-
ment. Union would be desirable, of course, but not indispensable.
Any honest vote would be effective, and no man would have this ex-
cuse for staying at home, that there was no use in voting. All par-
ties and factions and fads would have a fair chance. Straight Demo-
crat or Reform Democrat, Republican or Fusionist, Socialist or Pro-
hibitionist or Single-taxer or Knight of Labor, or whatever else, would
have the opportunity to show his strength and make his moral demon-
stration, for what it might be worth, without being scared out of his
liberty of suffrage by the party bugaboo and the cry that he was
throwing away his vote and giving the election to the enemy. If
among the candidates nominated under these severe conditions one
was found who, by his personal qualities or the strength of numbers
at his back, commanded a clear majority of the voters, he would be
elected, and no other man could be.


3. But suppose the other case that there is no clear majority, and
no choice ; what then ? Why then there has been held, under all the
sanctions that legislation can provide, free to every voter without dis-
tinction of party, a great nominating convention of the whole people,
which has put in nomination two candidates to be voted for that day
week. There will be a square fight. That little game by which a
knot of adroit intriguers handling a good working minority of votes,
has for decade after decade held dominion over the great metropolis
in spite of the demonstrated will of the people, the little game of Tam-
many, which is the game of all the little Tammanies that are to be
found the country over, in every town and city, is blocked forever.
The individual citizen is rehabilitated, and the people have come to
their rights again.

Not the least of the public benefits to be expected from the res-
toration of majority government is that it would permit the several
States to clear their statute books of the caucus laws now so generally
in use. Doubtless under the plurality system they are a necessary
evil ; for it is under this system, and this alone, that the power of the
caucus is a public peril, to be guarded against by drastic methods ;
and these are certainly drastic enough. Instead of abating the power
of the party machine, they aggravate it to the danger point, enabling
it to intrench itself in the statute-book ; giving it recognition before
the law with no corresponding responsibility to the law ; seeming to
give the citizens, so far as they are obedient partizans, power over the
machine, but really confirming the machine in its power over the
citizens ; completing the practical disfranchisement of the non-parti-
zan citizen. Doubtless these laws bring some relief from the impu-
dent frauds that have been common in the nomination business.
But the good they may do is more than offset by the adopting of
party organization as part of the fixed, legal machinery of go\ern-
ment. Perhaps no constitutional amendment that has ever been
adopted is of graver consequence than this device of gearing the
party machine into the mechanism of the State. It is a thing to
beware of.

I am fully prepared to show that the dynasty of Platt in the State


of New York, of Quay in Pennsylvania, and of the den of thieves in
Philadelphia are consequences of the same system. But time fails
and I must content myself with this one instance of the Tammany
despotism, as showing to what abuse a free people is liable, without
the safeguard of the New England principle of Majority Government.

How came this political principle to be adopted in all the New
England colonies but one, when there was no precedent for it in Old
England, nor, so far as I know, anywhere else in history ? It is an
interesting question on which much might be said, if there were time.
But however it originated, here it was, and here it stayed till within
the memory of some of us now living. And what it did to save the
cause of freedom and human rights in New England and in America,
and what it may yet do, if it can be got back into the place which it
ought never to have lost, to save all the States from the shame into
which Pennsylvania and New York have fallen, are subjects worth
your pondering. Let me tell the story from the Massachusetts point
of view.

The importance of majority election did not show at first. When
there are no parties and only one ticket, one mode of election is as
good as another. When there are two parties and no scattering vote,
a plurality and a majority are the same thing. But let the time come
when grave questions set honest and earnest men a-thinking, and
votes begin to scatter, it becomes a serious question whether scatter-
ing votes are to be reckoned as of any account, or not.

Well, that time did come. Whig leaders and Democratic leaders,
bidding against each other, committed their parties to the compro-
mise of principles of right and justice, in favor of great national par-
tizan interests. Then it began to appear whether a scattering vote
was worth anything. Presently, in the election returns, alongside of
the Whig column and the Democratic column, each with its thousands
of votes, appeared a little trickling rill of a third column "scatter-
ing" ten, or a dozen, or a score. And the party leaders were pleas-
antly amused, and said: " O, you had better give it up; you are
only wasting your vote ; you never can get your man in ; you will
have to choose between the two leading candidates." And birds of


ill omen, perched along the ridge-pole of the Liberator office, sat sim-
ply croaking in a dismal row, " It is of no use ; better let politics
alone and come and croak with us up here." But that was before the
scattering vote had been disfranchised in Massachusetts ; and the an-
swer was made it could not be made to-day " Perhaps we cannot
get our man in ; we can keep both your men out." And they did it.
One congressional election after another was hung up with "no
choice," (it is said that in one district there were no less than forty in-
effectual ballotings) until it was forced in upon the minds of the poli-
ticians that these obstinate and impracticable people must be reck-
oned with. So it came to pass that, by the power of the scattering
vote, the free citizens of Massachusetts, in spite of Whig, in spite of
Democrat, and in spite of the venomous little gang of Garrison
anarchists, were able to send to the Senate Charles Sumner and
Henry Wilson, and to place in the House of Representatives New
England incarnate in the person of Eli Thayer, the man who abolished

How came this priceless muniment of popular liberty to be lost ?
The story is worth telling.

The latest of those constitutional conventions which make so
noble a feature of Massachusetts history was held at a time (i 854)
when the growth of a third party caused the inconveniences incidental
to majority election to be keenly felt by the two parties which had so
long divided between them the supremacy of the State. It was natu-
ral enough that some should be eager to cut off the inconveniences at
a stroke by disfranchising the scattering vote counting it, to be sure,
and reporting it, but treating it otherwise as of no practical impor-
tance. It was demanded that Massachusetts should abandon the
most honorable and distinguishing feature of her immemorial polity,
and adopt the principle of plurality election, and let minorities govern.
The question was freely debated in as able a political assembly as
ever sat ; and great as were the temptations, the demand was resisted
and refused. Even case-hardened politicians, like the two Benjamins,
Hallett of Boston and Butler of Lowell, rose, for the moment, to the
dignity of a statesmanship wortny of the august body of which they


were members, and declared that, speaking as politicians, they would
welcome the change ; speaking as citizens, they must reject it. In the
spirit of that unknown Roman who planted a rose on the grave of


Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconFour lost legacies of the early New England civil polity: I. The old colony referendum. II. The principle of majority government. III. Sound license legislation. IV. The ideal of citizenship → online text (page 1 of 2)