Chasing Smallwood — .17. Politics

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and

the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

December 26, 2005, 2 p.m. All right. More? What else would you like to talk about?

Well, how about politics?

Sure. What about politics?

Well you know they say it took politics in the ’50s for Henry Thoreau to find out he had a country. That’s the kind of smart-aleck remark people make who don’t see behind the surface of things, or don’t want to be out of step with everybody else. The fact of the matter is that politics is mostly a waste of time, and always will be, except for one big thing: It keeps the machinery in being against an emergency. It’s like a standing army, mostly you don’t need it – in our time, at least – but if you do happen to need it, you need it, and what you spent on keeping it in being isn’t any too much, considering.

Now you know that the whole game of politics ain’t usually principles and statesmanship and high purposes. Usually it is offices, and government contracts, and everything we used to call “the courthouse crowd.” You could call ’em parasites and you wouldn’t be wrong. That’s why when the people finally have reason to pick up the machine and use it, it works so poor – they haven’t been maintaining it, they’ve been milking it.

I was never in politics and never could have been in politics. But when you got eyes to see, and friends to tell you things, and when you are living in a pretty small place like most places were then (I mean, the scale of things was different, and we could see it easier) you can’t help see what is, clearer than anybody might say ought to be, or what they say it is.

Politics was about putting together a machine to control jobs and contracts. There was other objectives too, like somebody’s personal ambition to be somebody, like that puffed up little squirt Douglas in Illinois. But that just helped keep people interested in feeding the machine.

Now, down south, politics was entirely different, you see, because there it wasn’t a whole bunch of different interests fighting for control. Them that had the machine was part of the group that always had the machine. If them that ran it liked you, and you had ability, you could move up. If they didn’t like you, you could move, period, because you weren’t going anywhere in the machine if Jesus Christ Himself vouched for you and signed your petition.

Do you understand what I’m saying? It was a very tight system because it represented a very tight system. There was only one party that counted – the slave power – so any politics was just who was going to be on the payroll.

I do not say the North was better, though it did suit me better, but it was different, for certain. The North had all these cross-currents the South did not have, so it was a real continuing battle to see which little pigs would get to the tits. Therefore northern politics was different. Therefore, too, the slave power ran the Union for too damned long: Where there were competing interests, the slave power could swing the balance. This was the most obvious in presidential elections (until ’60!) but equally true in congress, in state elections in the North, and even lower in the system – for someone running for a lower office who had the approval of those in higher offices had an advantage, and those higher office-holders often enough were running errands for the national party, and that often enough meant the slave power was recruiting and grooming its future allies.

Now, I know this ain’t what you are taught. And I know half of your readers are saying “that’s just Smallwood’s prejudices.” It’s hard sometimes to show you the truth when you’ve had years of other ideas.

The North had farmers, and it had the first factories, and the beginning of the iron and steel men, and it had its inventors, and its money-men – you’d call some of ’em bankers and other financiers – and it had its shippers and it had different interests in New England, Northeast, Midwest and after a while Pacific Coast. You can’t mix that many elements into something that’s going to function like the South where anything beyond slave plantations just did not figure.

So, you see, the South didn’t care if the president was from the North – as long as he only got to the White House with slave-power help and consent. And it didn’t much care about immigrants going north – the South couldn’t have swallowed ’em even if anybody had been fool enough to move to a place where he’d compete with slave labor – as long as it could block what it needed in the Senate.

Am I off the point again? I was trying to tell you how our politics worked.

Because southern politics was about maintaining a small class in control and northern politics was about various elements scrambling to be king of the hill, the politics was different; it was played for different stakes and by different rules, and the Democracy, being the only national party after the southern Whigs sort of dried up and blew away, bore the brunt of the strain. Because it was the Democracy, trying to be all things to all people, that couldn’t hold together after a certain point. And when the Democracy split, it let in the Republicans – and it was the end of an era.

But you see, the point I want to make is that the Democracy sooner or later was going to have to decide what it really belonged to, slave power or the new thing coming into being north of the Ohio and the Potomac. Things kept sharpening, sharpening, and there came a time you couldn’t serve both masters, but had to choose, even if (as usual) you didn’t give a damn about principle. How many office-holders take big chances for the sake of principles? Damn few, and damn seldom, and for all I know that’s the way it has to be and maybe the way it ought to be. Maybe that’s what makes the compromises that keep us from flying at each others’ throats.

The last politician who could walk both sides of the street inside the Democracy was none other than Stephan A. Douglas. And it was Abraham Lincoln putting the question to him in their debate in ’58 that put paid to Douglas’ presidential hopes. Mr. Lincoln – sly, clever, long-headed, calculating Mr. Lincoln – asked him a question that Douglas didn’t dare answer the way his presidential backers in the South wanted to hear – because he was too well aware that he could lose his Senate seat if he did. So he saved his seat, probably thinking he’d weasel his way out of his words in the next year or so – and that was the end for him, for the Democracy, and for the old Union. All from Mr. Lincoln’s question.

Douglas may not have understood that the southerners weren’t ever going to trust him. They’d use him, they’d borrow him in committee, so to speak, and they’d sure-God elect him if they had to – until he said the people of a territory could prohibit slavery from entering. Didn’t matter why, didn’t matter his qualification of the statement, didn’t even matter if he meant it – by this time they were rabid on the subject [of expansion of slavery into new territories], and there was no more way he could get two-thirds vote in a national convention.

And that was before John Brown! Mr. Lincoln blew it all up before John Brown and the only people who noticed were the politicians, who weren’t going to say it in public.

But, like I say, probably it was only a matter of time. The people in the North with the money wanted their way, too. Sooner or later the Democracy was going to have to choose, when the ground of compromise ran out.

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