Carrie Chapman Catt

Presidential Address to NAWSA - Feb. 11, 1904

Carrie Chapman Catt
February 11, 1904— Washington, D.C.
Print friendly

Delivered at the 36th Annual Convention of the National American Women Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C.

When the American Republic was new, and manhood suffrage represented a unique experience in the history of governments, Lord Macauley exclaimed in the confidence of deep conviction: "America will not live long. Whenever a government puts the ballot in the hands of her promiscuous citizens as America has done, it will not be long ere some Caesar or Napoleon among them will seize the reins of government and the republic become a monarchy." He undoubtedly reflected fairly the popular opinion of Europe in that day. There was sympathy with this point of view even in America. The heroes and leaders of democracy, and chief among them George Washington himself, not infrequently warned the people of perils which might yet arise to threaten the life of the young nation.

The possible dangers, in the minds of these friends and critics of democracy, however, were all born of the fear of militarism; and the warring Caesars and Napoleons among mankind were apparently the only suspected enemies. For so many centuries had men bowed in subservience before the thrones of kings and potentates, the world could not believe these same men could now stand erect and worthily wear the crown of the sovereignty of self-government. Nor could it believe they would respect "the will of the majority" without the military power of a centralized government to enforce it. A foreign foe, with larger army and navy, regarding the resources or the New Continent with jealous eye, might invent excuse for attack; the growth of sectional parties might lead to civil strife, an adventurous leader might take advantage of local differences of opinion, arouse a following to arms, and overthrow the government—these were the doubts the world held concerning democracy a hundred and fifty years ago.

Since that day democracy has swept over the world and has touched with its blessings every civilized nation. Men no longer bow in subservience before the thrones of kings. Kings there are still. but they have been shorn of their former power, and it is they who now bow before the majesty of the popular will. The gradual but certain disappearance of warfare as a popular and satisfactory settlement of international differences, and the incoming of arbitration as ·a more civilized method, inspire us .with the faith that our republic is no longer in danger from foreign foes. The sectional strife has come and gone, and the Union remains more closely cemented than ever before. Despite the fact that the Rev. Lyman Abbott loudly proclaims his belief that at almost any time all voters may need a bayonet to defend their ballots, our people as a whole regard the opinion as a species of mental aberration, and scoff at the suggestion of an internal military uprising. In fact, the possibilities of danger which appeared so real and probable a century ago have been left far behind by the progress of events. If any dangers threaten democracy, they are those unthought of a century ago. Manhood suffrage is no longer an experiment, but an established fact throughout the civilized world, and few remain to question its wisdom. The republic is the undoubted government of the future. Where democracy does not exist, time will bring it. This is the modern view. "The hands upon the dial of progress do not move backward," and men who have tested the liberty of the republic do not take kindly to the monarchy again, but rather join the poet in the declaration,

"I hate all kings, and caste, and rank of birth,
For all the sons of men are sons of God."

Yet at the beginning of the Twentieth Century there are misgivings as to the future of democracy in the United States. These doubts do not pertain to its permanency, but rather to its practicability. There is no question of the justice of universal suffrage but of its expediency.

It is said that progress moves forward in cycles, or waves, and that, after every high tide of popular opinion which carries a reform, or a new idea forward until it is anchored safely in law, there comes a never failing receding wave of conservatism and of doubts as to the wisdom of the preceding radicalism. However that may be, a reactionary spirit is certainly creeping into popular opinion in America, and the conviction is growing that the suffrage has been extended too freely; that the principles of democracy have been applied too literally, and that the problems of the most serious character have followed this cheapening of the ballot. As one man put it: "Democracy is bound to come, but we regard it as an impending doom which cannot be diverted, rather than a blessing to be welcomed." Man suffrage is not infrequently pronounced a failure, and slurs at democracy are common. The prevalence of political corruption is so well understood, yet is surrounded by so much mystery, that a suspicion of all elections and office holders seems to exist in some minds. That there are honest politicians all admit; the difficulty lies in separating the sheep from the goats, they look so very much alike. Extremists declare that American politics is a "dirty mire," unfit for decent women, or even men, to enter. The woman suffragist meets this skepticism on every hand. The intelligent man and woman of today meets the argument for the enfranchisement of woman with acquiescence. "We know you are right, we agree with you, but universal woman suffrage will only make a bad matter worse and add to the ills which are already appalling; we must wait, till the ignorant have grown intelligent, the intelligent have grown honest, and the politics the pure and exalted thing we picture it in our dreams." The superficial merely reply, with a shrug of the shoulder: "Too many people are voting already."

If we should express in simple English the motives which too apparently control the average legislator and politician, it would be thus: "We admit the justice of woman suffrage, but we don't want women in politics. Women have a spying fashion of finding out things which we don't care to have them know. Our machines are now in perfect order. We know exactly how to conduct an election; we don't want the cogs stopped by the introduction of a wholly new class of voters, whose party tendencies we do not know, and whose votes we may not be able to control. We have ambitions which we can carry out if things remain as they are; but if women came in, what would become of us? Nobody knows; therefore, while we are in, women must stay out; when we get out, other men may enfranchise women if they want to."

In fact, our daily experiences should lead us to conclude that the majority of the intelligent people of the United States believe in the justice of woman suffrage, and that the thirty-six years of education are bearing abundant fruitage. Our movement, however, is caught fast between the upper millstone of the reaction against democracy and the nether millstone of vanishing traditions. This should sufficient excuse for a careful inquiry into the causes of the reactionary spirit, the existence of which must be apparent to the most superficial student of our history.

The problems which awakened doubt at the beginning of the nineteenth century were: Will a determined minority, dissatisfied with the results of an election, submit to the will an honest majority? Will a handful of people, without an army and a navy, and with empty treasuries, be able to withstand a foreign foe? The problems at the beginning of the twentieth century are: Will an indifferent, inactive majority correct the evils fostered by a dishonest minority? Will a great nation, rich and powerful, of vast population be able to ferret out the insidious influences of corruption which work in darkness and in secret, yet threaten to disease the very vitals of the republic?

When Macauley uttered his skepticism against "the ballot in the hands of promiscuous citizens," the suffrage in the United States was based upon a property qualification. No reformer had arisen to plead that the ballot should be placed in the hands of the "irresponsible non-taxpayer," as he was afterwards called. No one had dreamed that the Negro and Indian would one day be welcomed to the political privileges of the government. The liberty of the new republic inspired men to good citizenship, and the fact that the government was an experiment, which was being regarded with curiosity and doubt by the great world, proved an exhilarating influence to promote its durability and permanence. Looking backward, we wonder that the world could doubt, when circumstances were so favorable.

Now, our suffrage is universal for men. No man except the Chinese born in China is permanently disfranchised. With the exception of the technical conditions pertaining to residence in State and precinct, and of naturalization, no qualifications are demanded of the voter. Some States deny the voting right to paupers, idiots, insane and criminals, but as other States do not put this limitation upon the suffrage, even these classes may qualify to vote in the United States if they desire. Long ago the tax qualification disappeared. Later, the nation cast the shackles of slavery from the Negroes, and before the masses of them had learned the meaning of freedom, put the ballot in their hands. Later still, Congress, in the hope of more effectually winning the Indian to civilization, enfranchised the chief tribes. The gates of the nation have long stood wide open, and a hearty invitation has been continuously extended to the oppressed and unfortunate of all the world to come and share the blessing of the new republic. A continuous army has poured within: an army of intelligence and ignorance, virtue and vice, industry and pauperism, health and disease, progress and degeneracy, and the generous republic has enfranchised them all. That the reactionary spirit largely rests upon the belief that the suffrage has been extended too generally and is the cause of the present dilemma, there is abundant evidence. It is well to inquire whether there is ground for the opinion. If the present skepticism concerning the final outcome of democracy is merely a reaction, following the period of radicalism represented by events connected with the Civil War, it will unquestionably pass with the next oncoming wave of progressive thought. If, however, universal suffrage for men is proving an obstacle to good government, conditions warrant a careful investigation. Surely, all advocates of democracy agree with Dr. Starr Jordan of Stanford University, when he says it is not the mission of the republic to make governments good, but to make men strong. If the responsibility of universal suffrage, then is really strengthening the intelligence and the character of men, we may well afford to bear with it in patience, even at the temporary expenses of good government. But if the development of good government and the growth of character in men are hindered by the operation of universal suffrage, it may become the duty of the republic, in the interest of true progress, to readjust the basis of voting citizenship.

Under the direction of Charles W. Dabney, president of the University of Tennessee, a report of the illiteracy of voters in the United States has been prepared from the Census, for the use of the Southern Education Board. The Commissioner of Education, W. T. Harris, has presented it to the public in his recent public report, and it is my authority for the following statements of figures.

In June, 1900, there were 2,326,000 men of voting age in the United States unable to read and write, or 11 per cent of the total number of men eligible to vote.

Of these, 977,000 are Negroes, but the larger number are white—1,254,000. It seems that in 1870 there were more illiterate Negroes than whites by an excess of 90,000. After thirty years of persistent and generous effort to provide educational facilities for the Negro, the illiterate whites now outnumber the Negroes by 277,000.

Of the white illiterates, a larger number, 565,000, are foreign born, but the number of native born is still greater, 688,000, or 113,000 more than the foreign born illiterates. To quote from the report:

[quote] It appears that the per cent of illiterates among the native born sons of native parents is nearly three times as great as among the native born of foreign parents. With the native born of native parents it is 5.8 per cent, indicating that our schools are accomplishing their purpose better for the children of immigrants than for our own American families. [unquote]

During the past sixty years the illiterate white male population of voting age in the United States has increased from 204,413 to 1,254,000, and the proportion of illiterate to the whole number of voters has increased from 6.15 to 6.60 per cent. We have been wont to think of the public school as a sort of miracle worker, which could guarantee immunity to the government from any threatened peril; and it is now startling to discover that the per cent of illiterate voters has steadily increased during the past sixty years, and that we now have a larger proportion of them than at any time in our history. It is no less startling to discover that 688,000 of them are the native sons of native parents. Time forbids a complete analysis of the situation, but a few items from the report may give some idea of the prevalence of illiteracy, and its possible effects upon political corruption.

In Louisiana, a Constitutional Convention in 1898 taxed its ingenuity to the utmost to hold within its voting classes its illiterate whites, while excluding its illiterate Negroes, and finally discovered the unquestionably unconstitutional "grandfather clause'' as the means to accomplish this end. In this State there are 32,000 illiterate whites of voting age, and the astonishing proportion of 20.3 per cent of its native whites of native parents are illiterate. It may be said that the public school system in Louisiana, still somewhat new, has not yet supplied educational advantages for all its people; but this explanation does not account for illiteracy in the North. While conditions are slowly improving in the South, they have as steadily been growing worse in the North Atlantic States, where unquestionably the corruption of voters is more common than in any other section of the United States, and where the processes of buying and controlling votes have reached the terms of an exact science.

In 1840, the States possessing the least illiteracy among white males of voting age were Connecticut, with 219 illiterate voters; New Hampshire, with 513; and Massachusetts, with 1,812. Now they have, respectively, 18,265, 10,288, 51,785. In the six New England States the per cent of illiterates was 1 per cent of the voting class in 1840; now it is 6 per cent. The small city of New Haven (population 108,027), under the shadow of Yale University, has 1,866 illiterate voters.

New York (population 3,427,202), long famed for its corrupt voting, has 65,566 illiterate voters. Philadelphia (population 1,293,697), sometimes called "the most American city," and sometimes "the worst governed city in America," has 17,588 illiterate voters. Chicago (population 1,689,575), certainly not particularly noted for its cleanliness in politics, has 20.572 illiterate voters. St. Louis, a city of half the size (population 755,238), still smarting from the sting of the revelations of political corruption, has 7,026 illiterate voters. These city illiterates must live almost within a stone's throw of school houses. We may pardon the foreigner who comes to this country past the school age, but we may well stand paralyzed with astonishment before the fact that there are 18,000 more illiterate white voters in the North Atlantic States than in the whole United States in 1840; and before we hasten to announce foreign immigration and Negro suffrage as the cause of the change, we may well ponder a bit over another fact, that in those same states there are nearly 58,000 illiterate voters who are white sons of native parents.

The problem of illiteracy, however, is not confined to our great cities. The territory of New Mexico is knocking at the door of the Union for admission into Statehood, and once in she will cast her electoral vote for President. Her population is nearly all white. Yet of her native born voters of native parents 24.5 per cent are totally illiterate; 15 per cent of her native whites of foreign parents; 30 per cent of her foreign born and 91 per cent of her Indian voters are likewise illiterate. A more extensive investigation into the report will repay the careful reader.

While contemplating the appalling ignorance among men, it may prove interesting to turn aside from the main question and to note some of the results of education upon women. When the woman suffrage movement was new, the world held the positive conviction that woman could not and did not possess the necessary intelligence to vote. Scientists measured heads and weighed brains to prove that girls could not master a college education. Clergymen read the Scriptures to prove that they must not, and public opinion echoed the deductions of both. But girls did master the college curriculum. When the world recovered from its astonishment, scientists investigated anew and discovered that measurement and weight could determine little of the quality of the human brain; clergymen re-interpreted the Scriptures; and public opinion adjusted itself to the new conclusion.

The last report of the Commissioner of Education states that 42,013 girls were graduated in the year previous in the public high schools, and 23,683 boys, or 18,330 more girls than boys. The total number of girls in attendance at the public high schools was 317,146, and the total number of boys was 224,584, or 92,562 more girls than boys. In the private high schools of the United States there were 54,408 girls in attendance and 53,813 boys, or 595 more girls than boys. In the same report it is stated that in 1900 there were 7,734,739 boys enrolled in the public schools of the United States and 7,606,481 girls, or 128,258 more boys than girls. It is thus demonstrated that a much larger number of girls than boys receive the higher education offered by the public schools. It is further reported that in the classes of 1901 there were 11,017 girls graduated who were intending to enter college as compared with 9,523 boys, and the women graduates from our colleges and universities in the twelve years between 1889 and 1901, according to the report for 1901, have increased 159.1 per cent, while men graduates increased 60.6 per cent. It is but a generation since colleges were open to women at all, and many years elapsed after the first college opened its doors before public sentiment favored college education for women. It is plain that if the present rate of increase continues, it will only be a question of time when there will be as many women as men graduated from our highest institutions of learning. Despite the fact that education even yet is not so generally advocated for girls as for boys among our foreign and ignorant classes of society, the Census of 1900 reveals that between the ages of ten and twenty-one, representing school years, there were 117,362 more illiterate males than females. If men and women had been entitled to the franchise upon equal terms in 1900, the political parties, which always make their appeals to the young men just turned twenty-one to cast his vote for "the party of right and progress," would of necessity have made the same appeal to young women to cast their first vote in the same direction, but they would have appealed to twenty thousand fewer illiterate among the young women of from twenty-one to twenty-four than among the young men. If the same conditions shall continue for the next twenty years, that, is if, there is no restriction in the suffrage for men and women remain disfranchised, and if the proportionate increase of women over men in the output of our public schools continues, we shall witness the curious spectacle of the illiterate sex governing the literate sex.

That the presence of more than two million of illiterate voters in our midst has proved a telling factor in producing the reactionary spirit, few will doubt. Yet it is not ignorance, per se, which is responsible for it; but rather the current opinion that much of the illiterate vote represents a purchasable vote, which, at the behest of unscrupulous leaders, may be thrown one way or the other, in accordance with the ability of the machine to pay.

The Negro vote has proved another powerful factor in producing the reactionary spirit. Several states in the South have made successful efforts to disfranchise the Negroes, and although there is good reason to suppose some of the methods employed are unconstitutional, there has been none of the vigor of protest from the North which would have been the inevitable result twenty years ago. It was the North which enfranchised the Negro, and it was the North which a few years ago opposed the shot-gun policy of intimidation with the shot-gun policy of defense. Northern party platforms were eloquent for many years with the determination to defend the Negro against any infringement of his voting rights. Why has the North now become so strangely silent and indifferent? Unquestionably the North still believes the Negro has an equal right with the white man to the protection of the ballot; it is still loyal to the 15th amendment which declares that "the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." If anywhere in the land a Negro should attempt to cast an honest vote, and was prevented by any cause whatsoever, there is no question but that an army would arise in his defense with former zeal. Why then, the evasive editorials in the Northern press, the indifference of the Northern public, the silence of Northern politicians? The cause is not difficult to find. The North thinks it has discovered that the Negro vote is largely a purchasable vote.

A few years ago the president of Yale University, in an article upon the venality of the ballot in Connecticut, published in the Forum, declared that 100 per cent of the Negro vote in that state was a venal vote. The same condition was found to be true in New Hampshire in a report from 80 per cent of the precincts compiled last year. Surely the statement that every negro vote is purchasable must be an exaggeration, but the currency of such rumors has its effect upon the general opinion that prevails among those who have come in most direct political contact with the Negro, that a very large per cent of the vote is purchasable in all those States where party pressure has led to the corruption of the suffrage at the polls.

We have considered the Negro question strictly as a Southern problem, but in the past thirty years there has been an exodus of Negroes out of the South and into the North. In the Census of 1900 a list of cities ranked by the number of Negro inhabitants places Washington at the head, Baltimore second, New Orleans third, and Philadelphia and New York fourth and fifth. The four cities containing the largest number of Negro inhabitants, therefore, leaving out New Orleans, are Northern. The Negroes who have migrated North are the better educated and more enterprising. There are among them many highly educated, honorable, and valued citizens; but as a race they stand upon the books of precinct chairmen as a purchasable vote. The mercury of one's enthusiasm may rise to a blood heat when defending the sacred rights of the Negro to self government, but it falls to the zero point when it is recognized that the vote is traded off for value received. "Distance lends enchantment to the viewer." Political campaigners found it an east task in the North a few years ago to stir the dying embers of sectionalism into a blaze of fervent resentment when they pictured very wicked white Democrats in the South forcibly restraining very virtuous black Republicans from the exercise of their citizenship. It seems a very different question now, when the problem has become nearly as much a Northern as a Southern problem, and when a negro vote in several centers has become sufficiently large to prove a balance of power at times, and one which may be swung more way or the other according to the ability of the political machine to pay. It is little wonder that the North is beginning to question the wisdom of the indiscriminate enfranchisement of the Negro in 1868. Splendid as have been the achievements of the Negro within the past generation, and rapid as have been his upward strides, yet many true friends of the race are asking today if its progress would not have been more harmonious and natural had the ballot been reserved for certain qualifications toward which it might have worked: a sort of diploma for a definite education gained, or for definite work accomplished. Would not American citizenship have held more meaning to them, and its sacredness been more respected, had it been deferred until they could be taught its significance?

It was believed in 1868 that the free schools would soon qualify the Negro for suffrage; and, with true philanthropic zeal, much Northern and some Southern money has been expended to furnish the opportunity. There have been good results. In 1870, 83.5 per cent of the total number of Negroes eligible to vote were illiterate, and in 1890 the per cent had fallen to 47.4 per cent. These per cents, however, are not to be regarded with too great satisfaction, for in 1900 there were 977,000 Negro male illiterates, and this number represents 114,000 more than the total number in 1870. Thus, while the per cent has decreased, the total number of illiterate Negroes of voting age has increased. These are facts which conduce to further questioning as to whether their enfranchisement was a wise application of the principle of democracy. Whether this point of view is just or unjust, expedient or inexpedient, it is unquestionably the one from which the majority of the people of the United States regard Negro suffrage after thirty-six years of trial.

Still another factor augmenting the reactionary spirit is the changed character of immigration. Our early immigrants came from Europe; the majority of our present immigration comes from Southern Europe, and from the lower strata of the population there. Northern Europe brought us industry, thrift, enterprise—the qualities which build up great nations and make for good citizenship and independent individualities; Southern Europe is sending us ignorance and poverty—the qualities which lead to dependence and pull down nations already builded.

In the report of the Commissioner General of Immigration for 1903, we find that 457,546 males were received the year previous from Southern Europe, and 122,938 from Northern Europe, or four times as many from Southern as from Northern Europe. The difference in the character of the immigration is demonstrated by the fact that only 3 per cent of those from Northern Europe were unable to read and write, while 32 per cent from Southern Europe were totally illiterate.

The rapid naturalization of these immigrants, the frequently forged certificates of naturalization, which make the necessary residence even less than five years, and the speedy paternal control of the new voters by the party machine, make a doubtful argument for so generous an extension of the suffrage.

Just what proportion of these voters represent the purchasable class is impossible to conjecture. Naturally, neither those who buy nor those who sell are ready to testify. The Census can give us no figures; but it is at least safe to claim that a very considerable proportion of the illiterate, the Negro, and the less intelligent classes of foreigners, in all those States where political contests are sufficiently close to make every vote count, are justifiably classes as "floaters." This great class of men with votes in their hands are a temptation to every unprincipled political machine.

Years ago the strife between parties led to the appointment of men who would visit the newcomers and the ignorant, instruct them in the pending issues, and teach them how to vote. It was legitimate work and honestly done. But as the number in this class grew greater, the party strife necessarily more intense, and the number of men willing to contribute time to party work fewer, the modern machine was perfected, and professional politicians did the work. The honest contest between rival parties was soon supplanted by the spoils system among this class. There was no longer any mention of honest issues, but control through promises of protection, employment, or, in greater party necessity, of money. By such methods, an illiterate vote which normally would prove of little danger, has been organized into a dangerous balance of power, and, under the direction of unscrupulous leaders, may well be regarded as the most serious menace to the permanency of self-government which has arisen during the life of the republic.

The idea of a republic is the idea of people governing themselves; and this new idea includes another, that of people who possess a sufficient degree of intelligence and virtue to render them capable of self-government. By a sort of unwritten social contract, the republic takes annually from all its people a per cent of their private possessions, and applies the amount to the maintenance of free schools and colleges, wherein the opportunity of education may be offered to young men and women; but in return, the government has the right of a party to a contract to expect that the beneficiary, in payment of his benefit, will contribute to the State intelligent and virtuous service. The young man is expected to render his service in the direct form of an intelligent and conscientious vote, yet if half the total illiterate vote was cast in the last presidential election (and apparently Mr. Dabney's report considers this a fair estimation, one vote in thirteen was cast by a man who could not "spell out a headline in a newspaper,'' nor a word on the party poster. In these days, when the educational work of political campaigns is largely conducted by the aid of printers' ink and the political rally, with its stirring discussion of men and measures has been largely supplanted by the newspaper, the poster and the tract, illiteracy has surely become an evidence of dangerous incapacity for good citizenship.

Votes, however, are not sold without money to buy. The seller is no more criminal than the buyer. Indeed, if there is a difference in responsibility of guilt, the tempter, rather than the tempted, should be the more condemned. Has not the world for 1800 years blamed Eve for the stolen fruit, and sympathized with Adam her "accomplice after the fact"? It is not the illiterate, the Negro, nor the newly-arrived immigrant who is blamable for the purchase of votes; it is the American; and alas it is the American of education and the American of means who is the guilty one. Yet the attempt to discover the source of the money supply for the corruption of votes, and to point out the responsible agent of bribery, is a task well-nigh impossible.

The contributions of party friends and the assessments made from candidates and political officials are the recognized ordinary source of campaign funds; but this does not account for the alleged millions which are raised and expended in an election of importance. Simultaneous with the steady increase of the ignorant vote, there has been a growth of corporate organizations, ending in the mighty trust and syndicate. Some of these are not particularly affected by the political situation, and probably have no connection with politician corruption. Powerful manufacturers, anxious to maintain a high tariff, brewers, railroads and mines fearful of opposing legislation, are supposed to be the most liberal contributors. Yet this may not be true, for these corporations furnish the most powerful lobbies in our Legislatures, and possibly all follow the plan of a Western Railroad President, who said to a friend of mine," We do not buy votes at the polls; we let the voters elect the Legislature, and then we buy the Legislature. It is cheaper and less trouble." Whatever may be the source of money, it certainly is forthcoming and it is as certainly used, while the corruption which results is responsible for the present reactionary spirit. The most mischievous effect is the indifference to the exercise of the suffrage, which is growing lamentably common.

In the last Presidential election, the total vote cast was 13,961,560. The united effort of newspapers, political machines, and campaign orators are put forth in a presidential election to secure the largest possible vote. Some of these absentees were probably unnaturalized, others were debarred by State restrictions, such as educational qualifications, and still others were illiterates, who of their own volition did not usually vote. But when a reasonable deduction is made for these three classes, one is forced to the conclusion that there remain some millions of men who were possessed of the necessary qualifications to render the service of an intelligent vote, and yet voluntarily absented themselves. The reform party of Philadelphia report that 49 per cent of the total vote was not cast in the last municipal campaign, and in the recent municipal campaign held in New York it is reported that 60,000 registered voters failed to appear on election day. In both cases the falling off was in the precincts of the "brown-stone and silk stocking voters," as they have been called.

In the failure of millions of qualified voters at the top to exercise the suffrage, and the corrupt control of millions of unqualified voters at the bottom, we meet the problem of democracy as it appears in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, and we find in the facts the certain causes of the reactionary spirit which governs the situation.

What is to be done about it? Are qualified women citizens to wait in patience until influences now unseen shall sweep away the difficulties and restore the lost enthusiasm for democracy? Or shall they attempt to determine causes, apply remedies, and clear the way for their own enfranchisement? That is our problem. For myself, I will say, I prefer not to wait. I prefer to do my part, small as it must be, in the great task of the removal of the obstructions which clog the wheels of the onward movement of popular government. I believe in democracy. If all the future were to be revealed before us, surely there could be discovered no grander, truer principle than that of an honest who1e obeying the will of an honest majority. Under a just administration and a right interpretation of that principle, there is no good, no generosity, no justice which might not be obtained. The minds of men and women grow more liberal as the generations pass; superstition gives way to reason, and tradition yields to truth. With a people fairly expressing an honest will, therefore, there is no problem which may not be solved, no helpfulness to the development of the people which will be denied, no progress which will not evolve. But lo, the choicest liberties of American men are in danger. The enemy does not appear before the gates of the nation with flying flags and Gatling guns, and with the presentation of a formal ultimatum; it works in the dark and in secret, we know not how, or when, or where. Diogenes, lantern in hand, searched in vain for an honest man. Honest men we have in plenty, and we require no lantern to find them. What we need is an electric searchlight on the spire of every capitol and court house to aid in hunting out the dishonest men, both high and low, rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, who prostitute the suffrage to the selfish ambitions of men or parties.

Who shall set the searchlight, who will keep it moving, and who will prosecute the hunt? No minor political party is strong enough or popular enough, and the two great parties are not to be thought of in this connection. It is customary for an ardent Republican to believe the Democratic party is the chief agent of corruption, and vice versa; but New York is Democratic and Philadelphia is Republican, and it would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black should either accuse the other of the lead in political corruption. Will the Democrats in a local precinct prosecute Republicans when they discover that the graveyards have been made to give up their dead to add to the Republican registration lists'? Nay, for Republicans may prosecute Democrats in the same precinct for forged naturalization papers. They both regard the act of the other as a point in the game, and Democrats only resolve not to neglect the graveyards, and the Republicans the naturalization papers, when the game is played again.

There are few intelligent party men who do not deprecate the existence of the immense proportion of ignorance and irresponsibility among the voters in our land. In conversation, both Democrats and Republicans are ready to announce themselves favorable to restrictive measures which will eliminate illiteracy and irresponsibility from their constituencies. Either is zealous to declare that such restriction would redound to the advantage of his own party, since the preponderance of ignorance and speedy naturalization and irresponsibility is well known to be confined to his rival party. But when the time for action appears, these same men grow halting and cowardly, for, after all, they are not sure that in the final test their own, and not the rival party, would lose the more votes through such restrictions.

At the top there are men who hate bribery and false methods, who court the fairness of the open arena, and whose souls are scourged by the knowledge of affairs. What can they do? As one prominent politician has put it, the party that attempts to wage a war on the machine control of voters "would be permitted to walk through a slaughter house into an open grave." The expression may sound a trifle sanguinary, but who will doubt its main truth? No, we shall find no hope there. It must be a non-partisan movement, one in which Democrats and Republicans, men and women can work, one which will find room and service for every person who feels the shame and humiliation of present conditions.

At present it is said reform is in the air. Many agencies are at work upon this problem, but the effort is spasmodic, and usually educational only. It waits for organization, concentration, systematic method. I would therefore propose that all organizations in the United States which stand for reform, education, or non-partisan politics, be invited to co-operate in the formation of a National Committee on Good Government by the appointment of one member. The number of such organizations is legion, their membership represents millions, their united strength would be irresistible.

The first duty of such a Committee should be the appointment of sub-committees to investigate causes and methods of politica1 corruption. No mistake must be made, and no innocent party or class must be caused to suffer for the guilty. When once the investigations are complete, the National Committee should wage a campaign, in which each organization auxiliary to it should be a working factor for the establishment of conditions which will eliminate the evil from our midst. "In union there is strength." I believe a Committee might be formed of such power and influence that every patriotic, true believer in democracy and honest government would lend a hand in the work to be done. I believe the best elements of our great political parties, and the majority of the smaller ones, would grow brave enough in the presence of such allies to join in this non­partisan campaign. A few remedies suggest themselves at once, although they may be based upon a superficial knowledge of the facts, and may not prove to be the most salutary.

  1. Does it not seem that the time has come when in defense of good government we must unite in the establishment of an educational qualification for the ballot, in all the States where it does not exist, and that this qualification shall be severe enough to represent a sufficient amount of understanding to guarantee a fitness for good citizenship? One may well ask, why punish the ignorant and the poor for the crimes of the intelligent and the rich, and common justice will answer, why, indeed? But it is surely no punishment to take away a vote which is only bartered away to the first "ward heeler." It is true that it is far from demonstrated that illiterate voters are necessarily "floaters," but there is sufficient testimony to lead us to the conclusion that their removal from the constituency would take away a great source of temptation, while it would impose no wrong upon them. A few months or years of effort would enable them to qualify themselves for the suffrage, no matter how exacting the qualification might be made.

    The present form of corruption which is engaging public attention is known as "graft," and since neither the buyer nor the seller is ignorant, it may seem that the disfranchisement of the illiterate will not reach the real cause of the difficulty. An investigation, however, into the conditions of our larger municipalities reveals the fact that the party which is guilty of graft is maintained in power by corrupt voting at the polls, and that the ignorant vote is the unconscious ally of the intelligent grafter. A ballot is a priceless possession to whoever will exercise it honestly and deposit his own opinion in the ballot box, but the moment he has sold it, it becomes a damage to him, a wrong to his fellow citizens, and a menace to society. To permit the condition to continue is virtually establishing the continental system of proxy voting, but instead of giving the proxy to the person of intelligence or property, as in Europe, our conditions place it in the hands of the unscrupulous party 1eader.

    There is a shadowy line between illiteracy and literacy, and doubtless there are men unable to read and write who possess keener mental vigor than men who may be classified as literates, but the number of such must be few. If 11 per cent of our total vote is absolutely illiterate, it is a justifiable conclusion that there is at least another 11 per cent which is classified among the literates, but whose knowledge is of so limited a character that political issues are to them enigmas passing all understanding.

    The republic might bear with safety the strain of ignorance represented in 22 per cent of its total vote, and might consider that this mass of ignorant voters were learning strength of character through the exercise of the suffrage, were it not for the fact that the political machines, with mighty moneyed powers behind them, are able to swing this vote one way or the other, in accordance with their will.

    No, justice must be done. The mission of civilization is to uplift humanity, to do away with caste and degradation. We shall not have attained the ideal until there is no longer ignorance and crime and poverty. It is the duty of those who are intelligent to uplift the ignorant. No nation can progress if an incentive exists through its laws and its institutions to make it to the advantage of any class to keep another class in ignorance. An educational qualification must therefore not be permitted to create an ignorant caste, but rather to stand as a degree of merit toward which all may strive. A reasonable time for qualifying for the vote must be allowed those who are already numbered in the voting constituency. A compulsory educational law should be the adjunct of the educational qualification. Who can conceive unjustice in the demand that a government of the people shall be based upon intelligence? Contemplation of the immense number of Americans, who, under the very shadow of the school-houses, have remained illiterate, should inspire us to the determination to offer an inducement to education, the value of which the most ignorant will realize. The application of the educational qualification should be made without discrimination, and no intelligent black man should be disfranchised while the illiterate what man is permitted to exercise his citizenship. It must be made on equal terms to the men of all races, classes and kinds.

  2. A certain source of corruption arising from the change of the character in our immigration, likewise needs attention. Not only is it bringing to us illiteracy, but there existed in the United States in 1900 nearly 600,000 voters unable to speak the English language. Of these nearly 14,000 were native sons of native parents. In Southern Europe, so-called universal suffrage exists, but a slight property qualification is demanded for the exercise of the suffrage. The class of men who are coming to this country from that section are men who could not qualify to vote in their own country; the majority of them are without property, 32 per cent are illiterate, and nearly all upon their arrival are unable to speak our language. Yet in five years' time we crown these men with the sovereignty of our citizenship. A five years' residence is probably quite sufficient to enable the intelligent foreigner to understand our laws and institutions well enough to enable him to cast an intelligent vote, but this is certainly not true of the more ignorant classes. Whether this source of danger can best be reached through further restrictions of naturalization or through revision of the naturalization laws should depend upon a careful analytical investigation, and would make one of the most important problems such a National Committee would be called upon to solve.
  3. Unquestionably one of the necessary remedies is the amendment of naturalization laws which now make possible the forging of certificates, and the addition to the voting lists of men who have not yet remained the necessary five years in our land. This is a minor remedy but a necessary one.
  4. Another minor remedy, but important, is the increase of the period of residence in the State and precinct in all those States where the system exists of importing voters just before election with the intention of adding their names to the corrupt voting lists.
  5. There is a growing conviction in our country that a slight property qualification should be one of the qualifications for the ballot. To use the words of a prominent advocate of political reform, "there is no reason why anyone should not be possessed of some property, either in the shape of a deposit in a savings bank, stocks, real estate, bonds, or what not; or that the amount of rental for the home should not be counted as a basis of representation." Such a theory seems like a backward step, and yet its merits are worth an investigation and perhaps even this may seem a necessary remedy to apply. With such restrictive measures in operation, a large per cent of the irresponsible, who are now the unconscious agents of corruption, would certainly be eliminated from the situation. 6.. A movement for the elimination of corruption, however, would be one-sided and unjust indeed, if its remedies should apply only to the purchasable vote. The pruning knife must be applied to the briber as well as to the bribed. The labor of discovering the briber and proving his guilt is accompanied by indescribable difficulties. Occasionally one is punished, and the punishment is imprisonment or a fine. These are well enough, and undoubtedly necessary, but why not "fit the punishment to the crime?" Why not disfranchise every man who gives or takes a bribe? Last winter the Governor of Arizona vetoed a bill for the enfranchisement of the women of that Territory. Very many of these women, intelligent, loyal, and virtuous women, had labored like Trojans to make the fact widely known that they desired to receive the benefits of the suffrage, and although the Legislature by a two-thirds vote granted their petition, the Governor followed the action with his veto. Within a few months an election was to be held, and this same Governor pardoned a criminal from the Territorial Penitentiary just before the election in order that he might not be robbed of his sacred right of voting. lf disfranchisement for men is such a disgrace and punishment, why not mete it out to those men who are guilty of the civil treason, for such it should be called, of attempting to demolish the very foundation of the Government? A case in New Hampshire offers hope that public sentiment might be aroused to the point where such a law would be supported and enforced. For many years a man had sold his vote regularly to his party. One year he made the mistake of selling it to both parties. The result was that both Republicans and Democrats refused to buy his vote again, and treated him so inhospitably on election day that he was practically disfranchised. His crime was not that he had been bought, but that he didn't stay bought! Is it too much to hope that the moral perceptions of the American people could be so developed that the same kind of political ostracism should be meted out to all buyers and sellers of votes? It would be an easier law to make, than to enforce; but with time, sufficiently strong public opinion might be created to ferret out these political criminals and bring them to justice.
  6. The reform parties in our great cities seem agreed that the chief cause of the existence of "graft" in our great municipalities is the indifference of those who should be most active in the support of good government. Mr. Folk, the worthy prosecuting attorney of St. Louis, has said that the politically corrupt represent but 1 per cent of the total vote: our difficulties have come through the apathy of the 99 per cent. Whether or not Mr. Folk is correct, any observer of American affairs will surely agree that those who are corrupting American politics represent a minority, and will agree that corruption continues to exist because the indifferent majority tolerates it. ln a Republic the majority has power to enforce its will, and when it fails to do so it is because it does not care to do it. There is therefore not such a crying need in American politics "to turn the rascals out'' as to turn in a spirit of patriotic, energetic, determined moral responsibility. It may be, therefore, that an investigation would reveal the fact that a very important source of difficulty is to be found in the failure of intelligent men to exercise their citizenship. If this proves true, it may be, it may be that it will be found necessary to turn a leaf backward in our history, and to adopt the plan in vogue in some of the New England colonies which made voting compulsory. It may be that it will be found feasible to demand of every voter who absents himself on election day, an excuse for a definite number of elections, he too should suffer the punishment of disfranchisement. If such a law should be found feasible and should be established, it goes without saying that a fishing or hunting trip in the country, or attention to one's personal business, would not be received as a suitable excuse.
  7. Yet, with the curtailment of the irresponsible vote at the bottom, and the indifferent or dishonest vote on the top, we would not have completed our task. An education of public sentiment must be conducted through every school and college and church, through the press, the pulpit, and the platform, until a healthy, wholesome hatred has been created for the selling and buying of votes at the polls, the "graft" of municipalities, and the corrupt control of Legislatures. We must burn into the understanding of our people a quotation from President Roosevelt's recent message to Congress: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people will perish from the face of the earth if bribery is tolerated." We must persuade Sunday school superintendents to teach a new commandment, a modern application of the old: "Thou shalt not buy, nor sell, thy vote." We must persuade the public school, the poor, over-worked public school, to teach the same commandment. As one lady put it, we need to add another "r" to the curriculum, and make it "reading, riting, rithmetic, and righteousness in politics." We must galvanize the whole electorate with the spirit of public service, and bring back the old enthusiasm for democracy.

The task before such a committee would be difficult indeed, and attended by such complications and perplexities that none but the brave would serve upon it. Yet, despite the difficulties such a committee could be formed, the causes could be found and the remedies could be applied.

The woman suffragist may well exclaim, "Oh, the pity of it all? How different might have been our conditions had the extension of the suffrage followed consistent and just lines!" We are surely reaping the harvest of the reasoning which enfranchised the non-taxpaying man, while the taxpaying woman remained disfranchised; which thrust the ballot unasked into the hands of the Negro, just out of slavery, while the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" pleaded for it in vain; which urged the Indians upon Western prairies to accept the suffrage as a favor, while the opinions of missionaries and teachers, who were trying to raise them to the level of civilization, were counted with idiots, while denying representation to educated American women. Such inconsistency in the application of justice does not finds its equal in all the world's history. Yet men are called the logical sex!

It is too late for regrets; our duty is to meet the present problem with a practical solution. We must not forget that a divinely appointed law of evolution is guiding the world ever onward and upward. We must not forget that American men have proved their wisdom, their courage and their generosity on many occasions. We believe in their honor and integrity; in their love of progress and the right. Surely they will not long temporize with a cause so sacred, and in the words of the poet let us pray:

"God give us men! A time like this demands
Great hearts, strong minds, true faith and willing hands;
Men whom the lust for office does not kill;
Men brave for truth, men whom the weak can trust;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will be just."

And let us paraphrase the words of the poet and pray again:

"God give us women! A time like this demands
Great hearts, strong minds, true faith and willing hands;
Women whom the thought of a vote will not affright;
Women brave for truth, who care not for what the world may say;
Women who possess opinions and who dare to do the right;
Women who will call for justice, now, without delay."

PDF version