Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "Marginal Notes"

(September 10 1898)*


It is my superfluous business in this column to remark in more or less casual fashion on current topics in art or letters. But one cannot always be absorbed in the shadowy products of the imagination, and I propose to make a marginal note on American political institutions as they reveal themselves at the present moment. What I have to say won't be very philosophical; it is nothing more than a personal opinion; and it has to do with events of yesterday.

In the great book of American history on the page bearing the record of the year 1898 some one will have to note: "In this year the States were infected with the Bacillus Imperialis." There is a controversy as to the deadliness of that germ. Many claim that it is wholly beneficial to the body politic, while others hold it in abhorrence as a pestiferous curse. But whichever side one may take in the latest American revolution, the revolution in thought and principles, whether we hold with the conservative followers of traditional democracy and national self-culture, or with the dazzled emulators of military nations who would embark their country on a perilous career of aggrandisement, one thing is certain; as an executive machine the American form of government is a lamentable failure. That it should be cumbrous and rigid is bad enough in times of peace, when its corruption and incompetence are less in evidence. In times of need its imperviousness to public sentiment and the stings of national conscience becomes awfully manifest.

Think of your conduct of the Cuban war, your pestilent transports, your fever-haunted camps. It was disgraceful enough that your troops should suffer in the stages of preparation; that they should be perishing now by fever and famine simply through the stupidity of your paid officials is a shame to you forever.

There you are, my friends, with all your boasted freedom and independence, sitting helplessly by, while your sons and brothers are murdered by your precious government of knaves and nincompoops. How long, you American people, do you think a British Minister could retain his control of power while ship after ship of dying soldiers came into Liverpool from a foreign war, while battalion after battalion was dumped in a malarial swamp sick, wounded, fever-stricken, to sleep on the naked earth, to feed on ship's biscuit and drink its own drainage?

Not twenty-four hours.

Why? Because England is governed by the English people. And when these things are actually occurring to-day in your country, how long will you stand it? You will stand it just as long as your President chooses to stand by his imbecile secretary.

Why? Because the United States is not governed by the American people. You think you govern yourselves, but you see you do not. In a crisis you are powerless. You have resigned your freedom to your chosen officers for a term of years. Your Constitution is an inferior one. It pretends to safeguard your liberties; in reality it commits you without redress to the greed of the partizan and the bungling of the demagogue.

Englishmen are not honester or more capable than Americans; but English statesmen are honester and more capable than American politicians. Why, again? Because the English form of government secures the service of the best men for the state, while the American form makes ampler opportunity for the charlatan and the trickster. You will notice that in England the strongest men always come to the front, while in America it is the mediocre men who oftenest attain the highest posts of office. In Congress there have been numerous instances of disappointed worth- men who were acknowledged to be easily the leading statesmen of their day, and who still were never entrusted with the chief power. In Parliament, if a man were so evidently and naturally the leader of his times, he would become Premier as a matter of course. Power would be entrusted to him, because the English have nothing to fear. Their servants can be dismissed at a moment's notice. It is the servant who fears. Whereas you Americans have given your public servants such unrestricted power you are afraid of them. And yet, as it is, you are robbed and befooled at every turn.

Honesty and efficiency are good things; they are particularly good qualities in public servants. Any thinking man could see that the English secure these traits in their ministers, while the American people seldom does. But it takes a series of hideous tragedies, like the return of your transports from Cuba, to drive that sad truth home to your mind.

Now what can you do in such a crisis? Nothing. You are horrified for a moment at the cruel spectacle, but even if your wrath would keep hot for a week you are powerless. The power is not with you; it is with your irresponsible Executive and his Cabinet. Your bosses are in the saddle and they will ride whither they choose. They have got a "good job," as you call it, and they won't relinquish it for a few hundred dead silly soldiers who went blindly off to conquer new fields for their greedy masters, under the impulse of that old delusion called patriotism. My friends, your real foes are not in Cuba or Porto Rico or on the other side of the earth; they are in Washington and Tammany Hall and every political convention you hold. You are bought and sold by your unscrupulous politicians, like the tame good-natured sheep you are.

And now your head has been turned by a new dream of empire. You wish to forsake the ways of your fathers and go into competition with the "effete monarchies" of Europe. Well, the market is open. But there is one thing I should like you to remember: if you are going into the empire business, you had better secure some kind of government which shall be your servant and not your master. You may be excused for allowing your harmless vanity to be inflated by conquest, but those who have had a thorough respect and love for your sterling character and principles will look with stern sorrow on your disgrace in the hour of victory. It is no mark of a free people to abandon its soldiers to the mercy of a set of thieving, incompetent officials. The world has heard a lot of cant about Spanish misgovernment and cruelty in the West Indies. It would puzzle Spain to match the mismanagement of your War Department. Your maudlin sentimentalism is outraged at Turkish atrocities in Armenia. But your own flesh and blood comes home to die on your doorstep, sacrificed to the unholy greed of your contemptible officemongers. What ever puny glory there may have been in your victory over Spain is drenched in the infamy of your bungling commissariat.

Listen to me. The first time you see your flag with its honorable stripes lolling in the wind, look at it well. Its stars are sullied, its stripes are stained. All the winds of heaven can never blow it clean of the mould of those Cuban transports and the germs of those miserable camps. Go to Washington and ask your grocery-store government what is the matter with "Old Glory." Perhaps you had better get a new flag.

And the first time you have a silver half dollar in your hand, look at it well. Whose image and superscription are there? What comely features are these? Liberty. Well, your Liberty is a courtesan. You have sold her to the bosses. Your Res Publica is a public thing. And the superscription, "In God we trust." Well, my friends, I can tell you one thing. God won't save you from the politicians. You will have to save yourselves. Perhaps you had better get a new emblem for your coinage. A typical boss's head would be appropriate-the familiar features of your President's manager, or one of the leaders of Greater New York's municipal factions. These ornaments of the rogues' gallery are your true lords and masters. The least you can do is to preserve their image on your noble coins. Then in time the different denominations of your currency would come to be known by the memorable names they bore. Theatre seats might sell for three "hannas" each; while good cigars would cost a "croker" apiece.

Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, Sept. 10, 1898 [back]