Thursday, April 14, 2011

Municipal Reform and Good Government

Revs.A.H and W.R. Harshaw were among the signatories of this open letter in 1890: (The People's Municipal League was a Progressive organization, presumably a part of the National Municipal League which later became the National Civic League.)

New York preachers have united in support of reform in city politics. Municipal misgovernment, a topic of constantly increasing importance, has not often been more trenchantly discussed than in the following address, signed, September 22, at a public meeting, by over one hundred representative ministers. We gladly make it a part of our record of current reform.

The undersigned are ministers of religion. As such, their office is to help their fellow-men to a righteous life. In so doing they must needs consider and advise touching the application of moral truth to political as well as personal and social questions. It is only when such advice meddles with indifferent subjects involving no moral issues and so assumes the form of mere partisanship that it can be justly condemned as inappropriate and pernicious. On all questions affecting the public morals it is the duty of those whose province it is to preach righteousness to warn the people against the dangers of a vicious solution and to urge them to a virtuous course.

It is for this reason that we address our fellow ministers of religion in the city of New York at this time, in relation to the moral wants and dangers of the metropolis that has been so highly favored of Providence, and ask them to join us in seeking to overthrow the rule of falsehood and fraud that now disgraces our city.

We make no charge against individuals, for we have confidence in many who are now in official places, but we distinctly impugn the methods and habits that have for a long time prevailed in almost every department of our city government. Men are placed in important posts of honor and trust who are notoriously of depraved life, the frequenters of liquor saloons and houses of vice, and educationally unfitted for any municipal duties. They manage their official influence solely for their personal profit, or for the furtherance of the party that gave them their places. All public interests under such control either languish or are directly injured. The immense income of the city is fearfully squandered, and under pretense of urban improvement jobs are created which never realize the improvements, but put thousands of dollars in plunder into the pockets of contractors and their governmental allies. It is estimated that the city of New York could be maintained in all its present condition for three quarters of the sum annually expended, and this estimate is made by comparison of the cost of maintaining the other great cities of the world, and with due regard to the difference in values of labor and products in the different countries. According to this estimate, twenty-five per cent. (i. e. $8,000,000) is wasted annually, and so much added unnecessarily to the taxes of the people.

But this waste of money is the least evil. Loose views and practices are popularized. Dishonesty in many forms pervades the community and loses its disgraceful stigma. The police who should be the picked men of character in the community are notoriously in the pay of the law-breakers, the high officials and the courts of this department being thoroughly tainted with public suspicion. The Excise Board make it easy for the disturbers of the peace to ply their vocation, and protect them against the complaints of outraged citizens. Money is found to be the key to open any difficulty and to shut off the efforts of justice. The poor are therefore oppressed and have no resource of relief. Every place, however humble, under the government must be bought. The poor man, who cannot obtain the hundred or the thousand dollars necessary, has no chance. Fitness for the place is of no account. Money and party are the only watchwords that gain an entrance. The effect of such an administration on public morals cannot be overestimated. In commercial circles the young men are tempted to follow the example of the officials who flourish by fraud, and as a consequence we have constant robberies by trusted clerks and defalcations by esteemed bank officers, so that public confidence is shaken in the institutions erected for public security. The whole tone of intercourse between man and man, as seen from the records in the daily papers, is lowered, and false dealing is looked upon as a trifle.

Now is this all? The debauched life of many public officials leads the young to the lowest forms of vice, as they learn to couple success with debauchery. A drunken police captain will be the model of a hundred youths in his precinct, and a high official frequenting a house of ill-fame will have a thousand follow in his wake. Vice is made a prize instead of a disgrace to young men by the vicious conduct of men whom they see to be in authority, and whom they regard as samples of success.

That these causes act directly and powerfully to increase crime cannot be doubted. The very government that is constituted to suppress crime and prevent it becomes the minister of corruption and multiplies the sources of criminal life.

There is another aspect of the problem of municipal reform intimately connected with that which has been presented above. A city government exists to order the conditions of life favorably for the mass of the citizens. As far as may be practicable, it must seek, if it be a true government, to lighten the burdens of the wage-workers, to ease the strain under which the poor earn their bread, to broaden the way to success for the average man, to promote the health and happiness and welfare of the mass of the people. It must concern itself with securing equitable taxation, with enforcing just legislation in behalf of labor, and with guarding public franchises. It must provide clean streets, healthful homes, ample school accommodations, and the best possible system of education ; rapid transit facilities, whereby families of modest means may make their homes in the suburbs; public baths, museums, libraries, etc., — in short, all that makes for manhood, physical, mental, and moral. This problem of good government is the problem of philanthropy. Therefore it is the problem of religion. But every religious endeavor is handicapped by our inefficient and corrupt administration. The money which might be spent on public improvements is largely wasted. We could not intrust such schemes of public improvement as other cities have carried out to brilliant success to any but capable, honest, and public spirited rulers. To aid in obtaining such rulers is the urgent duty of all religious men, in the interest of humanity. We ministers of religion, whose duties lead us to face sadly the wretchedness of our great metropolis, call upon our fellow ministers, as well as on all religious people, to put into this practical form that religion which teaches that the love of God is the love of man.

We are perfectly certain that the vast majority of voters in our city desire an honest and clean government, but they are ever failing to obtain it. And why? Simply because the great political parties of the' country manage our local politics, keeping up their political divisions to the ruin of the city, that the parties may be continued compact for the national contests. This is the excuse which sends men by the thousands like sheep to follow their leader and vote for the "regular candidate," be he ever so mean or corrupt. It is this party spell that must be broken in the city of New York, if we are to have a good and permanently good government. Good citizens must work together and vote together for good men, utterly ignoring party lines. To this end there must be organization. The People's Municipal League is instituted to divorce our city government from state and national politics, to nominate candidates for ability and integrity, independent of parties, halls, bosses, and factions, and to place the government on a foundation of righteous business principle, and by these means purify the moral atmosphere of our metropolis. We look upon this as a religious duty, and are not to be deterred by any fear that the organization may be used by adroit politicians, for we trust in the righteousness of the cause and in the high moral sense of the great majority of the community. We therefore invite all ministers of religion to unite in this movement, and to put before their congregations the importance of using the elective franchise for the purpose of a pure government, as against the demands of corrupt party organizations. We ask no one to leave his party on any state or national issue, but we ask the members of all parties to unite on a moral and not a party basis in the direction of our municipal affairs. Thus with a clear conscience and in the honest pride of citizenship the good people of New York will use their power, and the day of deals and bosses will be over. Fitness and faithfulness will be the ruling condition of office, and the public morality will be guarded by the public administration.

We put before the people the names of those who are perfecting the organization of the citizens, as a guarantee that no party end or personal advantage is sought, and that but one aim actuates the movement, the purity of our city government.

The address was signed by the following ministers : — Bishop Potter, R. Heber Newton, Howard Crosby, Morgan Dix, Gustav Gottheil, De Sola Mendes, Charles H. Parkhurst, James O. S. Huntington, David H. Greer, Felix Adler, Charles F. Deems, Benjamin B. Tyler, Robert S. MacArthur, Ensign McChesney, Abbott E. Kittredge, William T. Sabine, G. Frederick Krotel, Robert M. Sommerville, William Lloyd, George James Mingius, Carl Erixon, Samuel S. Seward, Amadous A. Reinke, Alexander Walters, Edward B. Coe, Wellesley W. Bowdish, Theodore C. Williams, Conrad E. Lindberg, Charles C. Goss, Homer H. Wallace, George Shipman Payson, George S. Baker, Waldo Messaros, Conrad Emil Sindberg, S. B. Rossiter, J. W. Brinckerhoff, George E. Strobridge, A. H. Harshaw, Benjamin Brewster, C. E. Bolles, Charles E. Bolton, A. P. Ekman, James M. Whiton, L. H. Schwab, W. J. Macdowell, George D. Dowkoutt, Henry Wilson, Paul Quattlandery, Charles J. Holt, R. E. Wilson, J. G. Scharf, Thomas Dixon, Jr., D. M. Hodge, W. Warren Giles, Thomas Douglass, William Huckel, James M. Philputt, Charles B. Smyth, John Parker, Madison C. Peters, H. Weinchel, Jesse W. Brooks, H. Olsen, George G. Carter, Robert Mason, Frederick Glenk, James Chambers, John Sutton, William H. Lawrence, B. Hopkins, J. Warden, A. B. Lilja, Walter M. Walker, A. H. Burlingham, George M. Mead, George H. Mayer, P. Watters, Edward D. Flagg, Henry M. MacCracken, Aaron Wise, Thomas Drummer, James H. Cook, Peter Stryker, George H. Simons, Isaac McGuire, W. R. Harshaw, J. W. Foster, Hayman Bradsky, .William Musgrave, Joseph Saxton, William Westerfleld, Clifton H. Levy, Theodore A. H. Meissner, Ellsworth Bonfils, Charles L. Thompson, W. C. Bitting, Thomas J. Ducey, Walter B. Floyd, Newton Perkins, Jacob Freshman, Charles B. Smith, G. Edwin Talmage, Henry Morton Reed, Joseph Baird, Frederick N. Rutan, John Henry Hopkins, James H. Headley, William A. Layton, Joachim Elmendorf, F. Hamlin, J. S. Stone, Gottfried Hammaskold, Arthur Brooks, J. G. Bates, Joseph Reynolds, Jr., S. De Lancey Townseud, S. D. Burchard, C. C. Goss, Philip Schaff, J. F. Busche, Spencer H. Bray, James A. Reed, A. F. Schauffler, R. N. Kidd, Samuel Buel and I. Ansonelliz.
In spite of the citizens' and the preachers' organized activity, corrupt politics triumphed in New York city in the November elections. This fact makes the foregoing address all the more significant and memorable.

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