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Chief Magistrate

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



When we pass beyond the requirements cited by Chief Justice Story, opinions differ as widely as the poles regarding the requisite qualifications of the man who aspires to be the Chief Magistrate of this country. Yet there is only one opinion respecting certain essential qualifications among all rational men, irrespective of politics or previous training. These essentials are frequently expressed more clearly negatively than positively. For instance, there is a deep-rooted prejudice against those individuals who for want of a better name are called geniuses. In the ordinary English dictionary the word "genius" is defined thus: "Natural endowment, natural faculty or aptitude of mind for a particular study or course of life, uncommon powers of intellect, and especially of inventive combination, a man endowed with such powers, peculiar character." The word, though Anglicized, is purely Latin without change of spelling. So, turning to the Latin dictionary, we find the definition as follows: "Genius, a good or evil demon attending each man or woman, or on mankind in general, either to defend or punish them." The word "demon," spelled "demon " in Latin, and in Greek "daimon," simply means a spirit, without designating its quality, but in our modern theology it means an evil spirit. The common and general acceptation of the term "genius " is a man who can accomplish extraordinary things without appearing to make much effort, and who is sometimes without much education. The genius seems to possess by mysterious innate faculties what but few others can aim at by long and laborious exertion, and a characteristic of the real genius is that his judgment in matters peculiar to himself is generally almost unerring. Hence the ancient Greek theory and the modern Christian doctrine, that there are always two spirits contending for the control of the individual. It is passing strange, however, that the people of the United States should seem disposed to ignore a genius in their choice of a President, and it is paradoxical also, for the reason that George Washington, the first President, was undoubtedly a genius in the truest sense of the term; and the five succeeding Presidents, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, were geniuses of different orders and varieties, but all on a pretty high plane. To John Quincy Adams succeeded General Jackson, and he was a genius of such an extraordinary type and so eccentric that to put him in the same category with the others would play havoc with all the rules of comparison. Without means and without education, by force of his indomitable will and fierce, untamable spirit, he elevated, or rather forced himself, step by step, to a judgeship and then to the presidency. The last step was not so extraordinary as the preceding ones, for, as the hero of New Orleans, Jackson became a popular idol, and the memory of all his savage deeds was cast into oblivion by that overwhelming victory; while the man who supplied the sinews of war for the achievement and mortgaged his estate to do it is hardly ever mentioned in connection with that glorious and final triumph over British ascendancy. Had not James Monroe, then Secretary of War, supplied the cash to equip the expedition, Jackson's heroism would have been ineffective, and Pakenham with his Peninsular veterans would have borne victorious laurels back to England. After Jackson, the geniuses appear to have stood aside as presidential candidates until Abraham, Lincoln loomed up, a giant, and with nothing of education but self-culture. That acquirement was his, however, to a high degree; and in this he was unlike Jackson, with whom letters were either secondary or ignored - though "Old Hickory" was not blameworthy for not cultivating a capacity and a kind of talent which he never possessed. If he had been the other kind of man, perhaps the battle of New Orleans might have gone the other way; whereas, if Lincoln had gone to the front and attempted to meet Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, or tried to beleaguer Vicksburg, instead of permitting Grant to do so, slavery in this country might be a recognized institution to-day. But the "daimons" that rule the destiny of war decided matters otherwise, and we can only abide by the results, and in the strength of our national optimism go on our national way rejoicing. The prejudice, therefore, against the selection of a genius for President would seem to have its origin in the apprehension that he would be likely to do something extraordinary that might embroil the country in war or other trouble, and, not being subject like an ordinary man to the will and disposing power of others, the step for him to a despotism would not be far, as in the case of Napoleon when, after the fashion of Roman generals, he made his election as First Consul of France a stepping-stone to the Empire. A cardinal objection to a genius for most practical purposes is that he is too self-willed. Otherwise he would not be a genius. There is some reason in this view of the case, but there is another cause at the bottom of the prejudice. The genius would not be likely to tolerate the political oligarchies that feed and exist on the gullibility of the rank and file of the voters. This is probably the chief reason why the strong man is feared in the presidency, while, if he is only a bogus genius and is trying to play the part without the capacity, he is a proper object to inspire alarm in the voters, and the independent suffragists should spurn the charlatan. But so long as "dark horses" are fashionable at conventions, and the secret caucus is the "power behind the throne," it is difficult sometimes to avoid mistakes in this direction. The first half dozen Presidents had no need of caucuses and other modern methods in politics. They had nearly all gained a great reputation as statesmen, with extensive experience both foreign and domestic. They were, most of them, profound scholars, for their times, and though several had been raised in the lap of luxury, they never shirked the very hardest labor and fatigue incident to the duties of the office. In fact, in every office which they had filled prior to the presidency, they had been found to be harder workers than those obliged to toil for a living from their earliest boyhood. Another qualification for President is that he should not be an " offensive partisan." On this subject George Washington has left on record some of the best counsel to be obtained in all the annals of political wisdom. Speaking of " combinations and associations" organized for party purposes, the first President deplores their tendency to strike at the root of some of the fundamental principles of a stable government. He says: - "They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force - to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests." If this party spirit, denounced in these strong terms by the Father of our Country, is such an evil factor in politics generally, it must be very bad when manifested in a candidate for the chief magistracy; and the aspirant possessed of tendencies so dangerous to the peace and safety of the nation should be shunned by all good people who wish to see our political institutions brought up to the full measure of purity and permanency. In pursuing this subject still farther, the man who was "first in the hearts of his countrymen " adduces the idea that republics, above all other kinds of government, have most to fear from this " offensive partisanship." In his remarks he displays at once the deep insight of the philosopher, the breadth of vision peculiar to the statesman and diplomatist, and the keen perception of the practical politician. Therefore, Washington decidedly was a genius, as judged by this expansive range of mental vision and faculty for combinations. He says: - "The spirit of party, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed, but in those of the popular form it is seen in greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. This leads at length to a formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty." A careful study of these precious words of Washington will partly explain, even in our times, why a genius, in the present condition of political parties with their factions and their jealousies, is not a desirable person for President. In the first instance, the right kind of genius, which presupposes moral worth of the highest type, could have little or no sympathy with constituents of this character, and opposing repellent forces are generally mutual in their action and reaction. These considerations and causes may, to some extent, account for the failure of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and others, to reach the goal of what was popularly supposed to have been their life-long and highest ambition. It is probable, however, that there is a great deal of popular misconception about the depressing effect that the disappointment left on the minds of these great statesmen. It is often flippantly remarked that Webster died of grief, from discomfiture and from pondering on his blighted hopes, but it appears that Webster was a man of too many intellectual resources to succumb to grief on this account, and he lived up to the Scriptural limit of three score and ten, while his great contemporary, Clay, died the same year (I852) at the ripe age of seventy-five. Both obtained renown that any President might envy, and several did envy. The probability is that the fame of Webster rests on a more secure basis than it would had he reached the presidential chair. The durable reputation which his last great patriotic speech in the Senate on the, Missouri Compromise gained for him, could hardly have been enhanced by any presidential honors. In order to be a popular President the incumbent of that office must be a diplomat of such a character as to enable the country, if possible, to be at peace with all other nations, except when a real casus belli arises, and then the people should be fully satisfied as to the justice and expediency of their side of the dispute, as in our late war with Spain. An error in diplomacy is a most fruitful cause of business depression and financial disaster, as our international business relations now stand. It is therefore fatal to the popularity of a President, as all the blame falls on him owing to his prominence no matter who else should justly share it; popular fury must have an object to aim at, and the most shining mark it can select is the Executive of the nation. The public do not take time to measure and calculate nice distinctions. The question for the majority of them is: Does this affair in politics or diplomacy make it harder to get along in the world and obtain a living? When international trouble is threatened, all are pinched before they get time to think why, and it is with the common laborer as with the wealthy financier. When the landlord calls for his rent at the first of the month, and the wife tells her husband about it, the latter asks: "Why, what is the meaning of this? He never used to be this way before, if it ran on into the next month." "Well, he says he needs the money," she replies. This conversation has hardly been concluded when the little girl comes in from the grocery store, and says, "Here's the grocer's bill, and he says he wants the money right off." "Why, what's the matter with him? Does he think we are going to run away? " Johnny next arrives from the butcher's, and says: "The butcher told me to bring the money with me the next time I came. He says he can't give any more trust." By this time husband and wife are both terribly confounded, and begin to imagine that some enemy is playing a practical joke upon them. Then it begins to dawn gradually upon the mental vision of the husband that he has heard some talk about a war message, and that, he thinks, has given rise to all the trouble. But this is not all. When the husband comes home from his work on Saturday night, he hands his money over to his wife as usual. She looks at it, and says: "Where is the rest of it?" He answers, "That's all I got. The boss says money is tight. He has laid off one third of the hands, and others with myself will be put on half time next week." The speculator calls on his broker, and says, "How about those shares?" "What shares?" "Oh, you know." "Let me see," says the broker. "What margin had you up?" " Five per cent.," confidently replies the customer. "Yes, my dear sir," sorrowfully rejoins the broker, "but that stock has declined ten points." "And am I wiped out? " queries the irate customer. "Well, of course," says the broker, "you're no tyro in dealing in stocks, and you were notified like others that more margin was required if you desired to hold on to your purchase." The customer, after being partially convinced that the broker has done his duty in the premises, restrains his ire and begins to ask about the cause of all the trouble. "Well," replies the broker, who is in sympathy with the Administration, "you have heard about that matter in which our national honor was involved -" "National honor be blowed!" ejaculates the furious customer, again lapsing into his tone of irritability and abuse. " I want my money back." "Well, you see," continues the broker, "a difference of opinion arose between our Secretary of State and Lord Salisbury, the Premier of Great Britain, and - " "Ah! Now, my dear sir, what are you giving us? I have nothing to do with politics or the foreign affairs of the government, and I don't see how it can affect stocks and my margin in that way." The experience of the banker is the same. A man calls for an accommodation, and offers collateral similar to that which has been taken without hesitation on other occasions. When the cashier asks him for more or some of a better quality, he is surprised, and feels offended that his credit is beginning to be held cheap. When he is told that securities have depreciated within a day or two since his last visit to the bank, he can hardly realize it. Thus it is that the collapse in confidence extends its influence throughout all the ramifications of trade, both small and great, and the blame everywhere is hurled at the head of the President. The people quoted as examples, together with a great many others, some of whom are far more intelligent about cause and effect, can see only their own side of the question and the side that affects their pockets. It is an old saying that the nearest way to a man's heart is through his pocket, and there may be a mutual attraction between the two that science has not yet discovered, even by the aid of the X-rays. However this may be, the influence over the feelings is stronger than any other of an earthly nature. There is an old proverb frequently quoted referring chiefly to newly married people whose worldly goods are scanty. It says, " When poverty comes in at the door, love flies out at the window." The same idea would seem to hold good in reference to patriotism. A man can sing the "Star-Spangled Banner,' or " Hail Columbia," with far more gusto after a good beefsteak, than when he is on short rations. It is difficult to attune the mind to the sympathetic air of a national anthem under the last named conditions. Although the mind has great power over the body, usually, the animal part of our existence is liable to succumb when not duly nurtured, and its influence then on the mental part of our organization is not the most salutary. But nothing can explain to the people a failure of prosperity that has happened through any incapacity on the part of the Executive to deal with the currency system. The people, it would seem, have always shown the deepest displeasure toward a President guilty of any shortcoming of this character. It was so in the time of General Jackson, whose two terms stand out in bold relief both for signal and successful achievements as well as for conspicuous errors, failures, and defeats. The worst of the general's mistakes, perhaps, from the point of view now under consideration, was his stubborn opposition to the renewal of the charter of the United States Bank, which had done very fair financial service for thirty-six years, considering the times and the difficulties in banking in those days. The charter had four more years to run when Jackson was elected the second time, in I832, and both Houses of Congress passed a bill to renew it. This was vetoed by the President, who also was guilty of the high-handed act of removing the funds to certain favorite State banks, against the most solemn and eloquent protests of Daniel Webster and others in the Senate, who declared that the act of removal was an illegal encroachment. Jackson, however, insisted on having his own way, and the result of withdrawing so much money from an institution that had the confidence of the greater number of the people and putting it into several other concerns that were not generally regarded as trustworthy, had its inevitable result. A panic ensued, followed by widespread financial disaster, and the President's pet banks began to inflate their paper and were unable to meet the runs on the money that had been taken from the big bank and deposited with them. Jackson afterward recovered a part of his popularity by the determined stand he took against John C. Calhoun and his confreres on the subject of "nullification "; but people retained a horror of him and were possessed with dread lest he might, by some mishap, get another opportunity of tinkering with the public finances. There seem to be some points of parallelism between General Jackson and Mr. Cleveland, both in the circumstances of their advent to office and in their arbitrary methods. They both sailed into office on the crest of the highest wave of popularity, and their interference with the legislative branch of the government turned the tide of that popularity. But the evil that Jackson did in the financial affairs of the nation lived after him. Jackson left his opinions on finance to Van Buren as a legacy which was afterward the chief instrument in creating the panic of 1837, which has been fully described in my book, "Twenty-eight Years in Wall Street." A makeshift Treasury Bill was passed which afforded temporary relief, but every effort to restore the charter of the United States Bank was defeated by the presidential party. Financial hope gleamed for a short time above the horizon of party spirit when, after the election of William Henry Harrison in 1840, Daniel Webster was appointed Secretary of State, and a bill was passed by both Houses, providing for the restoration of the charter of the United States Bank; but Harrison died a month after his inauguration, and Vice-President Tyler succeeded him in the presidency. Tyler had inherited the legacy of political State banking, by a kind of law of primogeniture, from Father Jackson through his politically adopted heir, Van Buren, and so he vetoed the bill. While this bank was not all that could be desired, yet it was much better than the State banks by which it was superseded. It thus will be seen, from the foregoing instances and comments, that the Chief Magistrate has far greater power in ordering the financial affairs of the nation than is commonly supposed. He seldom keeps within the limits of purely executive duty; circumstances seem to force him farther, often, perhaps, in spite of himself.



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