‘A Dundee Working Man on America — No. 14.’ by a Correspondent in New York (16 September, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Here the discussion focuses on the system of government, political parties and elections. For some context, this piece was published almost a year to the day after President Garfield had been assassinated. Perhaps one of the most interesting entries in this series, it comes with some intriguing observations,

“All are politicians (in their way) after they are ten years of age. For months before the election, people’s minds are kept in an intense state of excitement. Meetings, or rallies as they are called, are held. Torchlight processions walk the street, bands of music parade in all parts of the town, cannons are fired from every available point, fireworks go off from every corner, people wrangle and fight with one another, and many a time is blood drawn. During these contests nothing is talked of, morning, noon, or night, but politics, politics, until one gets disgusted at them.”

“I have seen a man leave my side in the workshop to go and vote for a certain candidate and come back in ten minutes with his two dollars in his pocket he had received for voting the other way. My impression is that a great deal of this political enthusiasm is for the sake of the almighty dollar.”

System of Government — Education — Religion — Political Parties — [Illegible], &c.

I need tell none of your readers that instead of having a Queen, King, Czar, or Sultan for our ruler, we have a President, chosen from amongst the people by the people. He may belong to the poorest of the poor. He may have been a poor mule driver on a canal bank, as was our late lamented martyred Garfield. No blue blood is required in the veins of our Chief Magistrate. Instead of having to go to a foreign country to get a nondescript to hold that office, ours must be a naturalised citizen, not appointed though hereditary incapacity, but elected by the votes of every man who has attained the age of twenty-one and been five years in the country. Instead of being in power for life, he is only chosen for four years. Instead of doing nothing for his salary, he is commander-in-chief of both army and navy, and bound by oath to do his best to preserve, protect, and defend the laws of his country. Instead of receiving three or four hundred thousand pounds a year, he received ten thousand, and has to keep his own family. When he commits any crime against the laws of his country, he is liable to be removed from office and punished for his offence. He has no power in making or altering laws, for the first article in the Constitution of the United States says:—“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” This Senate consists of two members from each State, making it now seventy-four members. They are chosen for the period of six years. They have the power over the House of Representatives. They deal with what would be called in Great Britain imperial questions. The House of Representatives now have two hundred and forty-five members, chosen for the term of two years. These members make the laws for the different States, subject to the Senate. The members of each House receive a salary of one thousand pounds per annum. For each day’s absence, except when caused by sickness, eight dollars per day is deducted from his salary. Such is a brief and very imperfect sketch of how we are governed in this country.

Let us take a glance at the educational condition of the country. Education is not compulsory, but it is free, that is, free from direct school fees; but the people are taxed for it in much the same manner in which you are taxed for your free libraries, only instead of being local, it is national. With the school system you can get all branches of education to your children, from the age of five years up to twenty-one. At the present time there are about ten millions of children and youth under instruction. In 1876 there were three thousand seven hundred public libraries in the States, containing twelve million volumes.

As to the religious position of the country, we find that the Methodists head the list. Taking all the different sects of that body, they number fourteen millions. The Baptists are next in number, all their different sects numbering twelve millions; Roman Catholics, six millions; Presbyterians, four millions; Lutherans, three millions; Episcopalians, two millions. These are the principal churches in America. Of course we have all the smaller denominations, not forgetting the Mormons, who are set down at one hundred and fifty thousand.

As to the laws that are made, I have no fault to find with them, but I have a very poor estimate of how they are put in force, or rather not put in force, besides the many loopholes that are left for people to evade them. For instance, in the States of New York and Pennsylvania it is enacted that no intoxicating liquor be sold on Sunday. Having been in some of the large cities in those States, and seen how this law was administered, it seemed to me that Sunday was the busiest day the saloon-keepers had, everything in the liquor line being sold in the openest manner, and the authorities looking it broad in the face. The principal reason for non-convictions is that the powers that be know too well that if they convicted any of the violators they would come out of office at the first election, as the Justices of Peace and other petty office holders are voted into office by the direct vote of the district, and the saloon-keepers generally have a good deal of influence in such elections.

There are prisons where you can get in to see any friend or acquaintance, and if they are smokers you can take in tobacco or anything that is perishable, and the prisoner can send out a letter to his friends at any time he likes. I was working in a shop with an old man who had a son in prison for a criminal offence. This man used to take tobacco, provisions, and other things into this prison. Alongside of the prisoner was another whose story is worth repeating. Seven years ago he brutally murdered his wife by beating her with a club and then cutting her throat. He was tried, and sentenced to be hung. He appealed for and received a new trial, with the same result. Again and again did he do this, until he in open Court received sentence of death four times. By this time he had been six years in prison. His last chance was to petition the Governor of the State for a commutation of his sentence. Then the most of people had begun to sympathise with him, and readily signed his petition. But the Governor, at the risk of his office at the next election, let the law take its course, and he was ultimately executed. Then we had the celebrated trial of Guiteau for the murder of the President. This is the way in which criminal cases go on in this country. In the State prisons, I believe, strict discipline is maintained. There is a large one in a city called Auburn, about fifty miles from here, where they take in prisoners who receive long terms of imprisonment. The walls are very high and broad. On the top of the walls are sentry boxes with soldiers and loaded muskets, and woe to the convince who tries to escape.

In some places the police work by the piece. It is done in this manner. (In a place called Fulton, in this State, I saw it practised.) When a man is arrested for, say, being intoxicated, the lowest fine that is put on him is seven dollars. Out of this the policeman who brings the man in receives three dollars. There are monthly pays in that place, and Robert is always on the outlook on pay night, and if a man don’t walk as straight as a soldier on parade that night off he goes.

I will now try and give you some idea of the different political parties that are in the States. There are four different parties or factions—Republicans, Democrats, Greenbacks, and Prohibitionists—but the latter two are so small in number that the real tug of war is betwixt the Republicans and Democrats. What the difference between these two factions is I know not. I have asked and asked in vain for an explanation of their different political creeds, but the only answer one gets is that the Republicans have been too long in power, or “We want a change” or “The Republicans swindle the public money,” and so forth. But whatever the difference is, if there is any, there is one thing sure, the parties are most bitter against one another. I often think that if Shakespeare had lived in our day and been here he would not have asked “What’s in a name?” He would have seen and heard that to call a Republican or Democrat by any other name would “stink as sour.” This bitterness shows itself most at elections—from the pettiest office up to the Presidentship. All are politicians (in their way) after they are ten years of age. For months before the election, people’s minds are kept in an intense state of excitement. Meetings, or rallies as they are called, are held. Torchlight processions walk the street, bands of music parade in all parts of the town, cannons are fired from every available point, fireworks go off from every corner, people wrangle and fight with one another, and many a time is blood drawn. During these contests nothing is talked of, morning, noon, or night, but politics, politics, until one gets disgusted at them. During the last Presidential election I went to almost every meeting held by both parties, just to see how Uncle Sam behaved at such times; for I had often heard of their tall talk, and what I had heard was in no way exaggerated. They bounce about their free country, but if their country is half as free as their tongue it will do. According to the different speakers, the Republicans are thieves, cheats, and swindlers and the Democrats cheats, robbers, and plunderers. There is no going about the bush with them; they call a spade a spade. I will in a few words describe one meeting without touching on the speeches. It was a Garfield rally. Long before the hour of meeting bands and torchlight processions were parading the streets. Fireworks, skyrockets, and squibs were flying in every direction. Red, blue, green, and every conceivable colour of lights were burning from windows and housetops. I made my way to the hall, which was beautifully decorated. The proceedings commenced by a choir singing a party song, the whole audience (some three thousand) joining in chorus. Then followed a speech, another song and chorus, another speech, then song and chorus, another speech, then a volume of noise by four brass bands, ten times three cheers for Garfield, and then another three times three and it was over.

In writing Garfield’s name I cannot help telling you that I had the unspeakable pleasure of seeing and hearing him, although only for a few minutes. He was only passing through this city during the campaign of his election. He came to the end of the railway car on hearing the cheers of the crowd, and said a few words. A big, sturdy, good-looking fellow, with a face in which truth and goodness were blended, and when the sorrowful news came that he was shot down like a dog by a cowardly fanatical villain I was prone to say with Hamlet—“He was a man, take him for all in all, we ne’er shall look upon his like again.” We can well spare tyrannical Czars, but not liberty loving, upright Presidents.

The way in which the petty offices are canvassed is amusing. Suppose the Republicans put up a candidate for Alderman, the Democrats do the same. One of them will come round with about a score of his followers. They go into a saloon, go up to the bar and call for drinks, and whoever happens to be in the place at the time are called up to get either their drinks or their cigars. If the stranger is in the least favourable to their candidate he is invited to go along with the crowd to the next saloon, and this process is carried on until the whole district has been gone through. The next evening the opposite candidate and his friends go through the same operation. I have seen this done over and over again. It is a nice chance for a thirsty elector. Where the money comes from, not being an elector, I have no means of knowing, but it must come from their party some way, for some of the candidates are as poor as church mice. When election day comes many of them make a traffic of buying and selling their votes. I have seen a man leave my side in the workshop to go and vote for a certain candidate and come back in ten minutes with his two dollars in his pocket he had received for voting the other way. My impression is that a great deal of this political enthusiasm is for the sake of the almighty dollar.

I cannot understand how it is that the great majority of the Yankees have such a bitter hatred of England and everything that is English. If any mishap occur to English arms or prestige they gloat over it. They believe and tell you that England is no first or second-class Power; that the days of her conquest and power are gone for ever. They tell you plump to your face the United States can not only beat England, but whip creation. It is their opinion—and I believe they are sincere in it—that there is no other country in the world that has anything so good as themselves. In fact, with them the United States is the greatest country under the canopy of heaven. But woe is me, there are lots of room for improvement yet. If a sculler or racehorse belonging to America happens to win a race in England you will never hear the end of it; but if it should happen to be the other way they are very quiet over it. Such was the case when you sent the littler cutter “Madge” over here from the Clyde some months ago to beat all their sailing craft, and it was the same when the English cricketers came last summer and now we have the Herd Laddie beating them all. I am glad of it, for the sake of making them keep quiet for a time; but for all that they do not show any ill-feeling towards one personally. I know that they have every shown kindness and respect to me wherever I have been. There are a great many Scotch, English, and Irish foremen in America, especially in Canada, which goes to show that they are held in high respect in some quarters at least.

Correspondent.

Rochester, N.Y.

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