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The Politician Post by :raleigh123 Category :Essays Author :David Grayson Date :October 2011 Read :3329

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The Politician

In the city, as I now recall it (having escaped), it seemed to be the instinctive purpose of every citizen I knew not to get into politics but to keep out. We sedulously avoided caucuses and school-meetings, our time was far too precious to be squandered in jury service, we forgot to register for elections, we neglected to vote. We observed a sort of aristocratic contempt for political activity and then fretted and fumed over the low estate to which our government had fallen--and never saw the humour of it all.

At one time I experienced a sort of political awakening: a "boss" we had was more than ordinarily piratical. I think he had a scheme to steal the city hall and sell the monuments in the park (something of that sort), and I, for one, was disturbed. For a time I really wanted to bear a man's part in helping to correct the abuses, only I did not know how and could not find out.

In the city, when one would learn anything about public matters, he turns, not to life, but to books or newspapers. What we get in the city is not life, but what someone else tells us about life. So I acquired a really formidable row of works on Political Economy and Government (I admire the word "works" in that application) where I found Society laid out for me in the most perfect order--with pennies on its eyes. How often, looking back, I see myself as in those days, read my learned books with a sort of fury of interest!--

From the reading of books I acquired a sham comfort. Dwelling upon the excellent theory of our institutions, I was content to disregard the realities of daily practice. I acquired a mock assurance under which I proceeded complacently to the polls, and cast my vote without knowing a single man on the ticket, what he stood for, or what he really intended to do. The ceremony of the ballot bears to politics much the relationship that the sacrament bears to religion: how often, observing the formality, we yet depart wholly from the spirit of the institution.

It was good to escape that place of hurrying strangers. It was good to get one's feet down into the soil. It was good to be in a place where things are because they grow, and politics, not less than corn! Oh, my friend, say what you please, argue how you like, this crowding together of men and women in unnatural surroundings, this haste to be rich in material things, this attempt to enjoy without production, this removal from first-hand life, is irrational, and the end of it is ruin. If our cities were not recruited constantly with the fresh, clean blood of the country, with boys who still retain some of the power and the vision drawn from the soil, where would they be!

"We're a great people," says Charles Baxter, "but we don't always work at it."

"But we talk about it," says the Scotch Preacher.

"By the way," says Charles Baxter, "have you seen George Warren? He's up for supervisor."

"I haven't yet."

"Well, go around and see him. We must find out exactly what he intends to do with the Summit Hill road. If he is weak on that we'd better look to Matt Devine. At least Matt is safe."

The Scotch Preacher looked at Charles Baxter and said to me with a note of admiration in his voice:

"Isn't this man Baxter getting to be intolerable as a political boss!"

* * * * *

Baxter's shop! Baxter's shop stands close to the road and just in the edge of a grassy old apple orchard. It is a low, unpainted building, with generous double doors in front, standing irresistibly open as you go by. Even as a stranger coming here first from the city I felt the call of Baxter's shop. Shall I ever forget! It was a still morning--one of those days of warm sunshine--and perfect quiet in the country--and birds in the branches--and apple trees all in bloom. Baxter whistling at his work in the sunlit doorway of his shop, in his long, faded apron, much worn at the knees. He was bending to the rhythmic movement of his plane, and all around him as he worked rose billows of shavings. And oh, the odours of that shop! the fragrant, resinous odour of new-cut pine, the pungent smell of black walnut, the dull odour of oak wood--how they stole out in the sunshine, waylaying you as you came far up the road, beguiling you as you passed the shop, and stealing reproachfully after you as you went onward down the road.

Never shall I forget that grateful moment when I first passed Baxter's shop--a failure from the city--and Baxter looking out at me from his deep, quiet, gray eyes--eyes that were almost a caress!

My wayward feet soon took me, unintroduced, within the doors of that shop, the first of many visits. And I can say no more in appreciation of my ventures there than that I came out always with more than I had when I went in.

The wonders there! The long bench with its huge-jawed wooden vises, and the little dusty windows above looking out into the orchard, and the brown planes and the row of shiny saws, and the most wonderful pattern squares and triangles and curves, each hanging on its own peg; and above, in the rafters, every sort and size of curious wood. And oh! the old bureaus and whatnots and high-boys in the corners waiting their turn to be mended; and the sticky glue-pot waiting, too, on the end of the sawhorse. There is family history here in this shop--no end of it--the small and yet great (because intensely human) tragedies and humours of the long, quiet years among these sunny hills. That whatnot there, the one of black walnut with the top knocked off, that belonged in the old days to----

"Charles Baxter," calls my friend Patterson from the roadway, "can you fix my cupboard?"

"Bring it in," says Charles Baxter, hospitably, and Patterson brings it in, and stops to talk--and stops--and stops--There is great talk in Baxter's shop--the slow-gathered wisdom of the country, the lore of crops and calves and cabinets. In Baxter's shop we choose the next President of these United States!

You laugh! But we do--exactly that. It is in the Baxters' shops (not in Broadway, not in State Street) where the presidents are decided upon. In the little grocery stores you and I know, in the blacksmithies, in the schoolhouses back in the country!

* * * * *

Forgive me! I did not intend to wander away. I meant to keep to my subject--but the moment I began to talk of politics in the country I was beset by a compelling vision of Charles Baxter coming out of his shop in the dusk of the evening, carrying his curious old reflector lamp and leading the way down the road to the schoolhouse. And thinking of the lamp brought a vision of the joys of Baxter's shop, and thinking of the shop brought me naturally around to politics and presidents; and here I am again where I started!

Baxter's lamp is, somehow, inextricably associated in my mind with politics. Being busy farmers, we hold our caucuses and other meetings in the evening and usually in the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is conveniently near to Baxter's shop, so we gather at Baxter's shop. Baxter takes his lamp down from the bracket above his bench, reflector and all, and you will see us, a row of dusky figures, Baxter in the lead, proceeding down the roadway to the schoolhouse. Having arrived, some one scratches a match, shields it with his hand (I see yet the sudden fitful illumination of the brown-bearded, watchful faces of my neighbours!) and Baxter guides us into the schoolhouse--with its shut-in dusty odours of chalk and varnished desks and--yes, leftover lunches!

Baxter's lamp stands on the table, casting a vast shadow of the chairman on the wall.

"Come to order," says the chairman, and we have here at this moment in operation the greatest institution in this round world: the institution of free self-government. Great in its simplicity, great in its unselfishness! And Baxter's old lamp with its smoky tin reflector, is not that the veritable torch of our liberties?

This, I forgot to say, though it makes no special difference--a caucus would be the same--is a school meeting.

You see, ours is a prolific community. When a young man and a young woman are married they think about babies; they want babies, and what is more, they have them! and love them afterward! It is a part of the complete life. And having babies, there must be a place to teach them to live.

Without more explanation you will understand that we needed an addition to our schoolhouse. A committee reported that the amount required would be $800. We talked it over. The Scotch Preacher was there with a plan which he tacked up on the blackboard and explained to us. He told us of seeing the stone-mason and the carpenter, he told us what the seats would cost, and the door knobs and the hooks in the closet. We are a careful people; we want to know where every penny goes!

"If we put it all in the budget this year what will that make the rate?" inquires a voice from the end of the room.

We don't look around; we know the voice. And when the secretary has computed the rate, if you listen closely you can almost hear the buzz of multiplications and additions which is going on in each man's head as he calculates exactly how much the addition will mean to him in taxes on his farm, his daughter's piano his wife's top-buggy.

And many a man is saying to himself:

"If we build this addition to the schoolhouse, I shall have to give up the new overcoat I have counted upon, or Amanda won't be able to get the new cooking-range."

That's real politics: the voluntary surrender of some private good for the upbuilding of some community good. It is in such exercises that the fibre of democracy grows sound and strong. There is, after all, in this world no real good for which we do not have to surrender something. In the city the average voter is never conscious of any surrender. He never realises that he is giving anything himself for good schools or good streets. Under such conditions how can you expect self-government? No service, no reward!

The first meeting that I sat through watching those bronzed farmers at work gave me such a conception of the true meaning of self-government as I never hoped to have.

"This is the place where I belong," I said to myself.

It was wonderful in that school meeting to see how every essential element of our government was brought into play. Finance? We discussed whether we should put the entire $800 into the next year's budget or divide it paying part in cash and bonding the district for the remainder. The question of credit, of interest, of the obligations of this generation and the next, were all discussed. At one time long ago I was amazed when I heard my neighbours arguing in Baxter's shop about the issuance of certain bonds by the United States government: how completely they understood it! I know now where they got that understanding. Right in the school meetings and town caucuses where they raise money yearly for the expenses of our small government! There is nothing like it in the city.

The progress of a people can best be judged by those things which they accept as matters-of-fact. It was amazing to me, coming from the city, and before I understood, to see how ingrained had become some of the principles which only a few years ago were fiercely-mooted problems. It gave me a new pride in my country, a new appreciation of the steps in civilisation which we have already permanently gained. Not a question have I ever heard in any school meeting of the necessity of educating every American child--at any cost. Think of it! Think how far we have come in that respect, in seventy--yes, fifty--years. Universal education has become a settled axiom of our life.

And there was another point--so common now that we do not appreciate the significance of it. I refer to majority rule. In our school meeting we were voting money out of men's pockets--money that we all needed for private expenses--and yet the moment the minority, after full and honest discussion, failed to maintain its contention in opposition to the new building, it yielded with perfect good humour and went on with the discussion of other questions. When you come to think of it, in the light of history, is not that a wonderful thing?

One of the chief property owners in our neighbourhood is a rather crabbed old bachelor. Having no children and heavy taxes to pay, he looks with jaundiced eye on additions to schoolhouses. He will object and growl and growl and object, and yet pin him down as I have seen the Scotch Preacher pin him more than once, he will admit that children ("of course," he will say, "certainly, of course") must be educated.

"For the good of bachelors as well as other people?" the Scotch Preacher will press it home.

"Certainly, of course."

And when the final issue comes, after full discussion, after he has tried to lop off a few yards of blackboard or order cheaper desks or dispense with the clothes-closet, he votes for the addition with the rest of us.

It is simply amazing to see how much grows out of these discussions--how much of that social sympathy and understanding which is the very tap-root of democracy. It's cheaper to put up a miserable shack of an addition. Why not do it? So we discuss architecture--blindly, it is true; we don't know the books on the subject--but we grope for the big true things, and by our own discussion we educate ourselves to know why a good building is better than a bad one. Heating and ventilation in their relation to health, the use of "fad studies"--how I have heard those things discussed!

How Dr. North, who has now left us forever, shone in those meetings, and Charles Baxter and the Scotch Preacher--broad men, every one--how they have explained and argued, with what patience have they brought into that small schoolhouse, lighted by Charles Baxter's lamp, the grandest conceptions of human society--not in the big words of the books, but in the simple, concrete language of our common life.

"Why teach physiology?"

What a talk Dr. North once gave us on that!

"Why pay a teacher $40 a month when one can be had for $30?"

You should have heard the Scotch Preacher answer that question! Many a one of us went away with some of the education which we had come, somewhat grudgingly, to buy for our children.

These are our political bosses: these unknown patriots, who preach the invisible patriotism which expresses itself not in flags and oratory, but in the quiet daily surrender of private advantage to the public good.

There is, after all, no such thing as perfect equality; there must be leaders, flag-bearers, bosses--whatever you call them. Some men have a genius for leading; others for following; each is necessary and dependent upon the other. In cities, that leadership is often perverted and used to evil ends. Neither leaders nor followers seem to understand. In its essence politics is merely a mode of expressing human sympathy. In the country many and many a leader like Baxter works faithfully year in and year out, posting notices of caucuses, school meetings and elections, opening cold schoolhouses, talking to candidates, prodding selfish voters--and mostly without reward. Occasionally they are elected to petty offices where they do far more work than they are paid for (we have our eyes on 'em); often they are rewarded by the power and place which leadership gives them among their neighbours, and sometimes--and that is Charles Baxter's case--they simply like it! Baxter is of the social temperament: it is the natural expression of his personality. As for thinking of himself as a patriot, he would never dream of it. Work with the hands, close touch with the common life of the soil, has given him much of the true wisdom of experience. He knows us and we know him; he carries the banner, holds it as high as he knows how, and we follow.

Whether there can be a real democracy (as in a city) where there is not that elbow knowledge, that close neighbourhood sympathy, that conscious surrender of little personal goods for bigger public ones, I don't know.

We haven't many foreigners in our district, but all three were there on the night we voted for the addition. They are Polish. Each has a farm where the whole family works--and puts on a little more Americanism each year. They're good people. It is surprising how much all these Poles, Italians, Germans and others, are like us, how perfectly human they are, when we know them personally! One Pole here, named Kausky, I have come to know pretty well, and I declare I have forgotten that he is a Pole. There's nothing like the rub of democracy! The reason why we are so suspicious of the foreigners in our cities is that they are crowded together in such vast, unknown, undigested masses. We have swallowed them too fast, and we suffer from a sort of national dyspepsia.

Here in the country we promptly digest our foreigners and they make as good Americans as anybody.

"Catch a foreigner when he first comes here," says Charles Baxter, "and he takes to our politics like a fish to water."

The Scotch Preacher says they "gape for education," And when I see Kausky's six children going by in the morning to school, all their round, sleepy, fat faces shining with soap, I believe it! Baxter tells with humour how he persuaded Kausky to vote for the addition to the schoolhouse. It was a pretty stiff tax for the poor fellow to pay, but Baxter "figgered children with him," as he said. With six to educate, Baxter showed him that he was actually getting a good deal more than he paid for!

Be it far from me to pretend that we are always right or that we have arrived in our country at the perfection of self-government. I do not wish to imply that all of our people are interested, that all attend the caucuses and school-meetings (some of the most prominent never come near--they stay away, and if things don't go right they blame Charles Baxter!) Nor must I over-emphasise the seriousness of our public interest. But we certainly have here, if anywhere in this nation, real self-government. Growth is a slow process. We often fail in our election of delegates to State conventions; we sometimes vote wrong in national affairs. It is an easy thing to think school district; difficult, indeed, to think State or nation. But we grow. When we make mistakes, it is not because we are evil, but because we don't know. Once we get a clear understanding of the right or wrong of any question you can depend upon us--absolutely--to vote for what is right. With more education we shall be able to think in larger and larger circles--until we become, finally, really national in our interests and sympathies. Whenever a man comes along who knows how simple we are, and how much we really want to do right, if we can be convinced that a thing is right--who explains how the railroad question, for example, affects us in our intimate daily lives, what the rights and wrongs of it are, why, we can understand and do understand--and we are ready to act.

It is easy to rally to a flag in times of excitement. The patriotism of drums and marching regiments is cheap; blood is material and cheap; physical weariness and hunger are cheap. But the struggle I speak of is not cheap. It is dramatised by few symbols. It deals with hidden spiritual qualities within the conscience of men. Its heroes are yet unsung and unhonoured. No combats in all the world's history were ever fought so high upward in the spiritual air as these; and, surely, not for nothing!

And so, out of my experience both in city and country, I feel--yes, I know--that the real motive power of this democracy lies back in the little country neighbourhoods like ours where men gather in dim schoolhouses and practice the invisible patriotism of surrender and service.

(The end)
David Grayson's essay: Politician

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