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Friday, April 19, 2024

Garfield on Congress

In April 1877, Representative (and future President) James A. Garfield wrote at The Atlantic:
And this leads me to say that now, more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand those high qualities to represent them in the national legislature. Congress lives in the blaze of “that fierce light which beats against the throne.” The telegraph and the press will to-morrow morning announce at a million breakfast tables what has been said and done in Congress to-day. Now, as always, Congress represents the prevailing opinions and political aspirations of the people. The wildest delusions of paper money, the crudest theories of taxation, the passions and prejudices that find expression in the senate and house, were first believed and discussed at the firesides of the people, on the corners of the streets, and in the caucuses and conventions of political parties.

The most alarming feature of our situation is the fact that so many citizens of high character and solid judgment pay but little attention to the sources of political power, to the selection of those who shall make their laws. The clergy, the faculties of colleges, and many of the leading business men of the community never attend the township caucus, the city primaries, or the county convention; but they allow the less intelligent and the more selfish and corrupt members of the community to make the slates and “run the machine” of politics. They wait until the machine has done its work, and then, in surprise and horror at the ignorance and corruption in public office, sigh for the return of that mythical period called the “better and purer days of the republic.” It is precisely this neglect of the first steps in our political processes that has made possible the worst evils of our system. Corrupt and incompetent presidents, judges, and legislators can be removed, but when the fountains of political power are corrupted, when voters themselves become venal and elections fraudulent, there is no remedy except by awakening the public conscience and bringing to bear upon the subject the power of public opinion and the penalties of the law. The practice of buying and selling votes at our popular elections has already gained a foot-hold, though it has not gone as far as in England.