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Bryant on “Municipal Reform”

The following article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the November/December 2002 Bryant Library Newsletter.

From The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, NYPL

On September 23, 1872, William Cullen Bryant (Editor-in-Chief of the New York Evening Post newspaper and a progressive Republican) spoke at a political rally held at the Cooper Institute in Manhattan. It was a presidential election year and a time of corruption scandals in both New York City and Washington. The meeting had been called by the New York City Council of Political Reform, in an effort to consolidate reform organizations and the “friends of reform” active in the city.

Bryant vigorously opposed the candidacy of Horace Greeley (editor of rival newspaper, The New York Tribune) who had been nominated for the Presidency by the Liberal Republicans, a newly formed third party and then by the Democrats. Bryant himself had been appealed to as a possible candidate, but declined. Reluctantly, Bryant gave his paper’s support to President Grant, who was reelected. The following is an excerpt from his September 23rd speech:

"I am glad, my fellow-citizens, to see that this occasion has brought so many of you together. It is not for any narrow party purpose that we are assembled; it is not that we may consult how to advance the interests of a popular favorite and his associates; it is not to pull down his rival and the set of men by whom his rival is supported. It is by a higher and nobler motive that you are animated, one in which all honest men necessarily concur—the wish to secure to the State, and to the smaller communities of which the State is made up, the benefits of a just, honest, economical, and, in all respects, wise administration of public affairs. You could hardly come together for a more worthy purpose.

It seems an idle remark, because it is perfectly obvious, that the great mass of people have no interest in being badly governed, but that, on the contrary, their interest lies in committing their public affairs to the men who will manage them honestly and frugally. It is the great mass who suffer when rapacious and knavish men obtain authority and power. The robbers are the few; the robbed are the many. If the many would only come to a mutual understanding and act together, the robbers would never obtain public office, or if by accident they obtained it, would be thrust out the first opportunity. In these matters concert of action is everything, and the rogues know it. As long as the opposition to their designs is divided into many little minorities, they laugh at it. High-handed villany takes its adversaries, one after another, by the throat, and strangles them in detail. An army scattered is an army defeated. It has passed into proverb that in union there is strength; it is just as true that in diversion there is weakness, and there are none who know this better than the knaves who enrich themselves by plundering the public….

Just as irresistible, and just as sure to accomplish their work, will be men whose interest it is that public affairs shall be frugally and wisely administered, if they can only be brought to combine with one purpose and one system of action. To promote this end we are assembled this evening. Let me not be told that if we keep one set of rogues out of office another will be sure to have their place. That is the moral of an old fable of Aesop, but the moral is a false one. You remember the ingenious parable: A fox among the reeds of a stream was tormented by gnats. A swallow, I think it was, saw his distress, and offered to drive them away. “Do not,” said the fox, “for, if you drive these away, a hungrier swarm will come in their place and drain my veins of their last drop of blood.” But, my friends, all that I infer from this fable is that official corruption is more than two thousand years old, at least. The lesson which this fable seems to inculcate—that they who plunder the public should not be molested in their guilty work—is absurd. There are in the community men whom you know to be absolutely honest, men of proved integrity, and all that you have to do is to agree upon such men as your candidates for office, and the public interest is safe.…"

*From: Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant, edited by Parke Godwin, NY: Appleton & Co., 1889.


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