« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
nounce on these weary pilgrims, and on the little ones still clinging to the mother's breast, the perpetual doom of constitutional exclusion from any honor they may hereafter fit themselves to receive at the hands of an intelligent people, willing to confer it were they not forbidden? This error in our political system the proposed Convention may remove; and no time for such a measure is so fitting as the present, when we have just escaped from the sudden effervescence of a malignant spirit of nativism, that has sought still further to exasperate the prejudices of nationality, and to make adopted citizens a degraded caste, even to the withholding from them the right of worshipping the Creator in the mode dictated by their consciences. Could such counsels unhappily prevail, our country, instead of extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and being then too small for the crowds that are teeming into life among us faster than any census can keep pace with them, would shrink into some narrow strip, which, like an old man's garment, would soon become "a world too wide for his shrunken limbs.”
Finally, we have tried long enough to benefit the public by granting special privileges to a select few; let us try whether the benefits will not be greater by making the privileges common to all. We have tried long enough to benefit foreigners by charitable societies, to attend to them when sick, and bury them when dead: let us eradicate the prejudices that make them perpetually inferior to natives, and perhaps they will pay their own doctors, and find a funeral without charity. We have tried long enough to benefit the poor by giving them soup in winter, and penitentiaries at all seasons : let us give them the legal privileges of the rich, and haply they will cook their own soup, and enjoy better incentives to worthy conduct than the fear of penitentiaries.
Our Constitution permits the infliction of special burdens, as well as the grant of special privileges. What would farmers think, should every man be compelled to Macadamize the road in front of his farm, or even to repair it in an ordinary way, except by a ratable contribution with all the other inhabitants of his road district? Still, in cities, persons whose lands lie along any street are conipellable by the city authorities to pave and flag it for the use of the public. And these exactions are often less disastrous to land owners than requirements to fill up low streets, dig down high ones, drain wet ones, and open new streets ; hence, in perhaps every city, hundreds of acres (especially of suburbs) remain with the owners at the sufferance of the local corporation, who can compel expenditures on the land that will induce its abandonment; while in some cities the option of abandonment will not avert liabilities which, in known cases, have deprived the owner of not the assessed property merely, but of all his possessions. Such extremes are of course not frequent; but so inherently vicious is the authority in question, that a member of almost any municipal corporation will display great resistance of temptation if he can pass through his civic year without sanctioning some wrong that would merit a penitentiary punishment if practised without the sanction of law. Even in Utica, of which the writer would speak kindly, he has purchased property in fee for a much less sum than the seller paid on it, many years previously, in assessments for grading and extending the street on which the property was situated. But, as respects Utica, the writer, to avoid every suspicion of personality, excludes her from all the preceding and following remarks, except to the extent only in which they refer to her by name.
If paving, flagging, &c., concern those alone who own adjacent land, with them alone should rest the option of paving or continuing unpaved; but if the paving concerns the whole city (and on no other principle can a city government claim authority over the question), on the property of the city at large should rest ratably the expense of the improvement. Any different proceeding exhibits the ano. maly of power in one set of men to decree improvements which another set are to pay for ; since experience shows that costly improvements are seldom ordered when the real estate that is to be burdened with the expenses is owned by the members of the corporation who decree the improvement. They are more usually in the position of the lawgivers of whom 1800 years ago was said reproachfully : “Ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.” To thus ward off onerous improvements from one's own real estate constitutes one of the benefits which makes a seat desirable in a city's councils; while another benefit consists in the ability to cause improvements to be made at the expense of others that will benefit some proximate property of one's own.
So naturally corrupting are powers which permit such results, that a person well acquainted with local interests can usually foresee, after every municipal election, where costly improvements will be ordered during the incoming civic year, and especially where costly improvements will be forborne, except such as are to be made at the common expense ; and so demoralizing of public sentiment is such legalized privateering on private property, that when an officer is expert in the practice of it, he is deemed by many only a shrewd man of enviable tact and thriftiness.
Nor are the foregoing the only temptations to evil. The system permits discriminations, which are sometimes used to revenge personal wrongs, sometimes to punish general unpopularity, and sometimes to deplete over-rich or absentee land-holders; hence, nothing is more common than the most abject petitions, private and public, direct and indi. rect, (through influential friends) to avert meditated improvements, which, in contemplation of law, are to benefit the remonstrants, and who, by virtue of such contemplation, are to pay the expense. And, still worse, nearly every corporation is surrounded by a multitude of retainers, who live by performing the labor and furnishing materials for coerced improvements. Like camp followers, they are ready to rifle the slain and wounded whether the fallen be friends or foes; and, being usually the belligerents most relied on for success at elections, every existing officer who is ambitious of a re-election propitiates them by his zeal in supplying them with spoils; and hence his chance of continuance in office is in an inverse proportion to the regard he exhibits for economy and resistance of expenditures. And nearly every city is afflicted with not merely one such army in possession, but with another in reversion, dependent on the success of a rival set of city officers, to be voted for at the incoming civic year. And as anticipators are ever more numerous than participators, the army of hope are generally able to change annually the city gov ernment, and to place it into new hands tremulous with gratitude to partisans who press around for remuneration, with an appetite sharpened by a year's abstinence, and made impatient by the consciousness that the time to make hay is while the sun shines. Even Utica has not always been exempt from the foregoing vices, that seem not the fault of individuals, but rather of the bad organization of which she participates; for one of her ex-aldermen has said, that when he once boggled about the expediency of some projected costly improvement, he was told explicitly by the "wheel within a wheel" of his day, that if such was his course his career would be short. We have not, however, approached the point arrived at in some older city, when an alderman sometimes becomes so suddenly rich, that it reveals a foregone secret iniquity, as unmistakably as the sudden expansion of a spinster's waist.
But our concern is not with evils, which, like collusion with contractors, depend for their cure on a reformation of public morals, but on such as the approaching Constitutional Convention may remedy. Every city improvement of a street must necessarily benefit some person specially, in addition to the general benefit. The like can be said whenever a country road district improves a highway, or our State constructs a canal, or the General Government a harbor; but nowhere except in our cities is the incidental beneficiary compelled to pay the whole expense of the improvement, so that the public, which orders the improvement, may obtain it free from charge. In thus reversing the principle which, in our General and State Governments, looks to the public benefit only, and disregards incidental private advantage, we, in effect, take private property for public use without adequate compensation satisfactory to the owner, and concentrate ruinously on a few persons an expense which, if borne ratably by all the property of the city, would seriously afflict none. Men who congregate in cities may be supposed willing to bear all burdens that on known principles are incident to a dense and luxurious population ; but we need not suppose them willing to see principles reversed, and to suffer as morally right in cities what would be morally wrong in