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Chapter 13: Our Elite and Public Life

THE complaint is so often heard, and seems so well founded, that there is a growing inclination, not only among men of social position, but also among our best and cleverest citizens, to stand aloof from public life, and this reluctance on their part is so unfortunate, that one feels impelled to seek out the causes where they must lie, beneath the surface. At a first glance they are not apparent. Why should not the honor of representing one's town or locality be as eagerly sought after with us as it is by English or French men of position? That such is not the case, however, is evident.

Speaking of this the other evening, over my after-dinner coffee, with a high-minded and public-spirited gentleman, who not long ago represented our country at a European court, he advanced two theories which struck me as being well worth repeating, and which seemed to account to a certain extent for this curious abstinence.

As a first and most important cause, he placed the fact that neither our national nor (here in New York) our state capital coincides with our metropolis. In this we differ from England and all the continental countries. The result is not difficult to perceive. In London, a man of the world, a business man, or a great lawyer, who represents a locality in Parliament, can fulfil his mandate and at the same time lead his usual life among his own set. The lawyer or the business man can follow during the day his profession, or those affairs on which he depends to support his family and his position in the world. Then, after dinner (owing to the peculiar hours adopted for the sittings of Parliament), he can take his place as a law-maker. If he be a London-born man, he in no way changes his way of life or that of his family. If, on the contrary, he be a county magnate, the change he makes is all for the better, as it takes him and his wife and daughters up to London, the haven of their longings, and the centre of all sorts of social dissipations and advancement.

With us, it is exactly the contrary. As the District of Columbia elects no one, everybody living in Washington officially is more or less expatriated, and the social life it offers is a poor substitute for the circle which most families leave to go there.

That, however, is not the most important side of the question. Go to any great lawyer of either New York or Chicago, and propose sending him to Congress or the Senate. His answer is sure to be, "I cannot afford it. I know it is an honor, but what is to replace the hundred thousand dollars a year which my profession brings me in, not to mention that all my practice would go to pieces during my absence?" Or again, "How should I dare to propose to my family to leave one of the great centres of the country to go and vegetate in a little provincial city like Washington? No, indeed! Public life is out of the question for me!"

Does any one suppose England would have the class of men she gets in Parliament, if that body sat at Bristol?

Until recently the man who occupied the position of Lord Chancellor made thirty thousand pounds a year by his profession without interfering in any way with his public duties, and at the present moment a recordership in London in no wise prevents private practice. Were these gentlemen Americans, they would be obliged to renounce all hope of professional income in order to serve their country at its Capital.

Let us glance for a moment at the other reason. Owing to our laws (doubtless perfectly reasonable, and which it is not my intention to criticise,) a man must reside in the place he represents. Here again we differ from all other constitutional countries. Unfortunately, our clever young men leave the small towns of their birth and flock up to the great centres as offering wider fields for their advancement. In consequence, the local elector finds his choice limited to what is left - the intellectual skimmed milk, of which the cream has been carried to New York or other big cities. No country can exist without a metropolis, and as such a centre by a natural law of assimilation absorbs the best brains of the country, in other nations it has been found to the interests of all parties to send down brilliant young men to the "provinces," to be, in good time, returned by them to the national assemblies.

As this is not a political article the simple indication of these two causes will suffice, without entering into the question of their reasonableness or of their justice. The social bearing of such a condition is here the only side of the question under discussion; it is difficult to over-rate the influence that a man's family exert over his decisions.

Political ambition is exceedingly rare among our women of position; when the American husband is bitten with it, the wife submits to, rather than abets, his inclinations. In most cases our women are not cosmopolitan enough to enjoy being transplanted far away from their friends and relations, even to fill positions of importance and honor. A New York woman of great frankness and intelligence, who found herself recently in a Western city under these circumstances, said, in answer to a flattering remark that "the ladies of the place expected her to become their social leader," "I don't see anything to lead," thus very plainly expressing her opinion of the situation. It is hardly fair to expect a woman accustomed to the life of New York or the foreign capitals, to look forward with enthusiasm to a term of years passed in Albany, or in Washington.

In France very much the same state of affairs has been reached by quite a different route. The aristocracy detest the present government, and it is not considered "good form" by them to sit in the Chamber of Deputies or to accept any but diplomatic positions. They condescend to fill the latter because that entails living away from their own country, as they feel more at ease in foreign courts than at the Republican receptions of the Elysee.

There is a deplorable tendency among our self-styled aristocracy to look upon their circle as a class apart. They separate themselves more each year from the life of the country, and affect to smile at any of their number who honestly wish to be of service to the nation. They, like the French aristocracy, are perfectly willing, even anxious, to fill agreeable diplomatic posts at first-class foreign capitals, and are naively astonished when their offers of service are not accepted with gratitude by the authorities in Washington. But let a husband propose to his better half some humble position in the machinery of our government, and see what the lady's answer will be.

The opinion prevails among a large class of our wealthy and cultivated people, that to go into public life is to descend to duties beneath them. They judge the men who occupy such positions with insulting severity, classing them in their minds as corrupt and self-seeking, than which nothing can be more childish or more imbecile. Any observer who has lived in the different grades of society will quickly renounce the puerile idea that sporting or intellectual pursuits are alone worthy of a gentleman's attention. This very political life, which appears unworthy of their attention to so many men, is, in reality, the great field where the nations of the world fight out their differences, where the seed is sown that will ripen later into vast crops of truth and justice. It is (if rightly regarded and honestly followed) the battle-ground where man's highest qualities are put to their noblest use - that of working for the happiness of others.

Eliot Gregory