The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 50

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Concentration of Power: Presidents Feed on Precedents

As there is a centralizing movement in the respective States, so is there an even stronger centralizing movement from the States toward the Federal Government. Everywhere Privilege grows more potent; and as it strengthens, it centers power in fewer and fewer points. We can have no choice but concede that so far as actual political workings and results are concerned, our learned Russian contemporary, M. Ostrogorski, in his "Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties," presents a faithful picture.

The will of the party machine has to a great extent superseded the great democratic will at any rate in normal times and in the absence of any political convulsion. Popular will, through general suffrage, quickly superseded, as to effective operation at least, the electoral college, which had been established in the Federal Constitution for the periodical selection of the incumbent of the presidential office. But the general suffrage next abdicated its right of free, conscientious exercise, and has fallen into the habit of choosing between the candidates named by the party nominating conventions, these conventions being, M. Ostrogorski thinks, animated by the hope of patronage, while a larger, but in no way conflicting influence is embodied in the needs and desires of Privilege, the manipulator of politics.

Any manifestations of independence by the individuals who have occupied the presidency do not, in the eminent observer's judgment, refute his conclusion, but confirm it, since they prove the rule by the exceptions. That is to say, the people at large have long since been so engrossed by the business of getting a living that they have turned over the matter of their political thinking largely to party machines, and Privilege has had only to capture those machines to acquire control of a greatly centralized political power. Who of us will gainsay this statement by M. Ostrogorski:

We can find why the mass of citizens accept this condition of things if we do what M. Ostrogorski does not do -- examine social conditions which underlie political conditions; for men are social before they are political; they must satisfy their physical wants before they will, at least in a sustained way, think about their political rights.

If in its practical operation government is to be administered by only a part of the people, and for the advantage of that part solely or chiefly, then the ordinary man must wonder if, in this era of great economic disparities, when huge monoplies by their exactions intensify the struggle of the mass for mere bare comforts -- the necessaries in our stage of civilization -- it is not better for the average man in the mass to give up the dream of democracy and look rather to some kind of benevolent despotism, where the principle of noblesse oblige might be expected to cause the despot, while exclusively exercising the privileges of decreeing and administering the laws, to see that his political serfs, subjects or creatures obtained for their labor sufficient to guarantee their physical health, and also, within narrow limits, their mental and moral peace and development.

They might well conclude that a despotism that feeds them is better than a democracy that starves them.

Perhaps a mixture of these feelings and a further feeling of the futility and the danger of protesting kills enterprise in men who otherwise would be active in politics and the promotion of the democratic idea. But are not men who have even such an inclination growing less numerous? Disagreeable though it be to admit it, candor nails us to the truth that the strong-man idea is rapidly growing in favor among us. Give the strong man authority -- that is the thought. And the argument in favor of it is: if the strong man be honest, let him alone. And what if he prove inconsistent in many things or even that he make blunders? Shall these things be held against him who is working for the public weal? What if he takes to himself powers not given him by law, if he do this in order to act in the public interest? And who cares if this assumption of power prove a precedent for some other strong man later -- some other man who may not be so single-minded? When such a situation arises it can be met. Meanwhile let the strong man alone. Give him added powers and grudge him not their extension if he sees how by such extension he can do things.

Put this to the test of facts. Mr. James Ford Rhodes, the historian, has told us how during the Pullman-Chicago railroad strike, in 1894, Mr. Cleveland, "under advice of his able Attorney-General, made a precedent in the way of interference for the supremacy of law and the maintenance of order." ("The Presidential Office," Scribner's Magazine, February, 1903.) How much "supremacy of law and maintenance of order" followed this action we may judge from the report made by the investigating Commission appointed by President Cleveland himself (see previous chapters). But that aside, we may agree with Mr. Rhodes that President Cleveland did "make a precedent," and a very serious precedent, in sending Federal troops to Chicago on appeal of the railroad corporations and against the repeated and most solemn protests of the Governor of Illinois.

That was the action of a Democratic President. In the spring of 1899 a Republican President, Mr. McKinley, made a similar "precedent." He sent regulars to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, during a labor trouble. If the Governor there did not protest at the Federal Executive's action, neither he nor the Idaho Legislature invited it. Certainly no such action by the President, considering the circumstances, was contemplated by the authors of the nation's Constitution.

Mr. Elihu Root, after he had retired from Mr. Roosevelt's cabinet as Secretary of War and before he had returned to it as Secretary of State, gave public utterance to the evil flowing from such a course, saying:

"The moment that a people," says an editorial in the New York Independent (November 24, 1904), "ceases to decide what things it wants and proposes to have, and leaves all such decisions to its Government, with a merely general demand that the Government promote the general welfare and the common happiness, that moment the reality of republicanism has ceased, and the reality of personal rule, under whatever name or disguise, has begun."

And has not "the reality of personal rule" begun? As has been remarked, a strong tide is at present running toward the abdication of power, of responsibility, even of thought, by the people in favor of the Chief Executive of the nation. The fancy is for a "strong man" in that office and a strenuous policy; for a man who will "do things." And encouraging and strengthening that fancy is a great party movement which thrives and expects to continue to thrive by supporting such a man and policy. Behind it and directing it is vested Privilege, which in one way or another hopes to make such a man its friend and figurehead, or at least to shear the locks of whatever aggressiveness he may have against it.

This "strong man" idea is not without bold legal portrayal. Mr. Charles A. Gardiner, the constitutional lawyer and distinguished member of the New York bar, calling the present time "the age of executive development," describes the attributes of the President of the United States as those of "a majestic, constitutional figure, uncontrolled by Congress, unrestrained by the courts, vested with plenary constitutional power, and absolute constitutional discretion -- a sovereign over eighty million people and the servant of eighty million sovereigns, whose sole inspiring purpose is to serve his fellow-citizens, guard their liberties, and make this nation the freest, most enlightened, most powerful sovereignty ever organized among men." ("The Constitutional Powers of the President," an address before the New York State Bar Association, Jan. 18, 1905.)

What does the lawyer mean by this? A dictatorship? A dictator would scarcely ask more power than Mr. Gardiner construes the Constitution as giving the President. The lawyer cites the Tenth Amendment, which reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Mr. Gardiner interprets this to mean that all powers belonging to the States, and not delegated by them to the United States, remain reserved to the States; and that likewise all powers belonging to the people of the United States at large, and not delegated by them to the United States, remain reserved to the people. And then, argues he, since the people created the President, and endowed him with their executive and magisterial attributes, "they expressly invested him with practically all their executive and magisterial powers. The whole is equal to the sum of the parts. Hence such executive and magisterial sovereignties, passive and active, must include those that may at any time have been reserved in the Tenth Amendment; and the President has express constitutional power to execute them."

From this follows as a logical consequence the idea of presidential "absolute discretion."

Whether the Constitution is properly to be construed in this way is not the question here. What we are noting is that, whether properly or improperly, this argument is made, and that it defends a movement that is virile and strong -- a movement that gathers in aggressive, militant executive hands.

This concentrated power manifests itself in a marked degree in various directions. One of these is the development of the "Executive Order," based upon the President's construing of certain laws. By such an order Mr. Roosevelt retired in one day last summer fifty-five navy officers, practically in the prime of life, each officer receiving the next highest rank on retiring and a pension of three-quarters of the pay of his new grade. These men were retired on their own application and were free to go into other employment, which doubtless many of them have done or will do. Certainly this is not according to the simple reading of the law. Such a result probably never occurred to the members of Congress who drafted and passed the statute.

After a similar generous fashion, Mr. Roosevelt has "suspended" the operation of the civil service laws relative to appointments. He has also made tariff rulings which have been equivalent to distinct enactments.

But more prominent than any of these cases is that of a pension order, No.78, issued through the Secretary of the Interior. A bill had been introduced into Congress known as "H. R. 11199." It proposed that any person who had served ninety days in the army or in the navy during the War of the Rebellion, and who had reached the age of sixty-two years, should become entitled to a pension of eight dollars a month; that every one who had become sixty-six years of age should be entitled to ten dollars a month, and every one who had reached seventy years should be entitled to a pension at the rate of twelve dollars a month.

This measure involved a great increase in the pension expenditures. Congress refused, or at any rate failed, to pass it. Yet the President appeared to be determined to carry out its terms precisely as if it had been passed. He required the Secretary of the Interior to issue an order decreeing that the Pension Office would so act. This order was issued on March 15, 1904. The majority in Congress being of the same party as the President, this arbitrary action went without more than a brief bickering.

"Why is it necessary for Congress to do any labor on pension affairs?" asked a Democratic United States Senator. "Why not leave it all to the Secretary of the Interior and let him run it by Executive Order in the future?"

This indulgence of mild satire was practically the only weapon the Democrats in Congress could use in the case, for when they attacked, the Republicans retorted that President Roosevelt, Republican, had merely followed a precedent established by President Cleveland, Democrat. That smothered Democratic opposition. Which is as much as to say that party spirit is ready to condone executive aggression. Does this not verify De Tocqueville's words, "In great republics political passions become irresistible, not only because they aim at gigantic objects, but because they are felt and shared by millions of men at the same time"?

And it is always to be remembered that what democracy loses in the centralization movement, Privilege directly or indirectly acquires and temperately or intemperately uses. Privilege is the antithesis, the enemy, the destroyer, of equality. It seeks embodiment in highly centralized government, from which to despotism is but a step.

Next Week: Foreign Aggression!

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