Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Making of an American > XIV. I try to go to the War for the Third and Last Time
Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.
XIV. I try to go to the War for the Third and Last Time
THAT which I have described as “sitting up with a club” in a city like New York is bound to win your fight if you sit up long enough, for it is to be remembered that the politicians who oppose good government are not primarily concerned about keeping you out of your rights. They want the things that make for their advantage; first of all the offices through which they can maintain their grip. After that they will concede as many of the things you want as they have to, and if you are not yourself out for the offices, more than otherwise, though never more than you wring out of them. They really do not care if you do have clean streets, good schools, parks, playgrounds, and all the things which make for good citizenship because they give the best part of the man a chance, though they grudge them as a sad waste of money that might be turned to use in “strengthening the organization,” which is the sum of all their self-seeking, being their means of ever getting more and more. Hence it is that a mere handful of men and women who rarely or never had other authority than their own unselfish purpose, have in all times, even the worst, been able to put their stamp upon the community for good. I am thinking of the Felix Adlers, the Dr. Rainsfords, the Josephine Shaw Lowells, the Robert Ross McBurneys, the R. Fulton Cuttings, the Father Doyles, the Jacob H. Schiffs, the Robert W. de Forests, the Arthur von Briesens, the F. Norton Goddards, the Richard Watson Gilders, and their kind; and thinking of them brings to mind an opportunity I had a year or two ago to tell a club of workmen what I thought of them. It was at the Chicago Commons. I had looked in on a Sunday evening upon a group of men engaged in what seemed to me a singularly unprofitable discussion of human motives. They were of the school which professes to believe that everything proceeds from the love of self, and they spoke learnedly of the ego and all that; but as I listened the conviction grew, along with the feeling of exasperation that sort of nonsense always arouses in me, that they were just vaporing, and I told them so. I pointed to these men and women I have spoken of, some of them of great wealth—the thing against which they seemed to have a special grudge—and told them how they had given their lives and their means in the cause of humanity without asking other reward than that of seeing the world grow better, and the hard lot of some of their fellow-men eased; wherein they had succeeded because they thought less of themselves than of their neighbors, and were in the field, anyway, to be of such use as they could. I told them how distressed I was that upon their own admission they should have been engaged in this discussion four years without getting any farther, and I closed with a remorseful feeling of having said more than I intended and perhaps having made them feel bad. But not they. They had listened to me throughout with undisturbed serenity. When I had done, the chairman said courteously that they were greatly indebted to me for my frank opinion. Every man was entitled to his own. And he could quite sympathize with me in my inability to catch their point of view.   1
   “Because here,” he added, “I have been reading for ten years or more the things Mr. Riis writes in his newspaper and in the magazines, and by which he makes a living, and for the life of me I never was able to understand how any one could be found to pay for such stuff.”   2
   So there you have my measure as a reformer. The meeting nodded gravely. I was apparently the only one there who took it as a joke.   3
   I spoke of the women’s share in the progress we made. A good big one it was. We should have been floundering yet in the educational mud-puddle we were in, had it not been for the women of New York who went to Albany and literally held up the Legislature, compelling it to pass our reform bill. And not once but a dozen times, during Mayor Strong’s administration, when they had wearied of me at the City Hall—I was not always persona grata there with the reform administration—did I find it the part of wisdom to send committees of women instead to plead with the Mayor over his five o’clock tea. They could worm a playground or a small park out of him when I should have met with a curt refusal and a virtual invitation to be gone. In his political doldrums the Mayor did not have a kindly eye to reformers; but he was not always able to make them out in petticoats.   4
The School of the New Day.
   The women prevailed at Albany by the power of fact. They knew, and the legislators did not. They received them up there with an indulgent smile, but it became speedily apparent that they came bristling with information about the schools to which the empty old Tammany boast that New York “had the best schools in the world” was not an effective answer. In fact they came nearer being the worst. I had myself had an experience of that kind, when I pointed out in print that an East Side school was so overrun with rats that it was difficult to hear oneself think for their squeaking in the dark “playground,” when the children were upstairs in their classes. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which comprises the important officials of the city Government with the Mayor as presiding officer, took umbrage at the statement, and said in plain words that I lied and that there were no rats. That was a piece of unthinking ignorance, for an old schoolhouse without rats in it would be a rare thing anywhere; but it was impertinence, too, of a kind of which I had had so much from the City Hall that I decided the time had come for a demonstration. I got me a rat trap, and prepared to catch one and have it sent in to the Board, duly authenticated by affidavit as hailing from Allen Street; but before I could carry out my purpose the bottom fell out of the Tammany conspiracy of ignorance and fraud and left us the way clear for three years. So I saved my rat for another time.   5
   This “fact,” which was naturally my own weapon, the contribution I was able to make from my own profession and training, was in reality a tremendously effective club before which nothing could or can stand in the long run. If I can leave that conviction as a legacy to my brother reporters, I shall feel that I have really performed a service. I believe they do not half understand it, or they would waste no printer’s ink idly. The school war was an illustration of it, all through. I was at Police Headquarters, where I saw the East Side, that had been orderly, becoming thievish and immoral. Going to the schools, I found them overcrowded, ill ventilated, dark, without playgrounds, repellent. Following up the boys, who escaped from them in disgust—if indeed they were not barred out; the street swarmed with children for whom there was not room—I saw them herded at the prison to which Protestant truants were sent, with burglars, vagrants, thieves, and “bad boys” of every kind. They classified them according to size: four feet, four feet seven, and over four feet seven! No other way was attempted. At the Catholic prison they did not even do that. They kept them on a “footing of social equality” by mixing them all up together; and when in amazement I asked if that was doing right by the truant who might be reasonably supposed to be in special danger from such contact, the answer I got was “would it be fair to the burglar to set him apart with the stamp on him?” I went back to the office and took from the Rogues’ Gallery a handful of photographs of boy thieves and murderers and printed them in the Century Magazine with a statement of the facts, under the heading, “The Making of Thieves in New York.” I quote the concluding sentence of that article because it seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that there was no getting away from its awful arraignment:—   6
   “While we are asking at this end of the line if it would be quite fair to the burglar to shut him off from social intercourse with his betters, the State Reformatory, where the final product of our schools of crime is garnered, supplies the answer year after year, unheeded. Of the thousands who land there, barely one per cent kept good company before coming. All the rest were the victims of evil association, of corrupt environment. They were not thieves by heredity; they were made. And the manufacture goes on every day. The street and the jail are the factories.”   7
   Upon the lay mind the argument took hold; that of the official educator resisted it stubbornly for a season. Two years later, when one of the School Commissioners spoke indulgently of the burglars and highway robbers in the two prisons as probably guilty merely of “the theft of a top, or a marble, or maybe a banana,” in extenuation of the continued policy of his department in sending truants there in flat defiance of the State law that forbade the mingling of thieves and truants, the police office had once more to be invoked with its testimony. I had been keeping records of the child crimes that came up in the course of my work that year. They began before the kindergarten age with burglary and till-tapping. “Highwaymen” at six sounds rather formidable, but there was no other name for it. Two lads of that age had held up a third and robbed him in the street; at seven and eight there were seven housebreakers and two common thieves; at ten I had a burglar, one boy and four girl thieves, two charged with assault and one with forgery; at eleven four burglars, two thieves with a record, two charged with assault, a highway robber, an habitual liar, and a suicide; at twelve five burglars, three thieves, two “drunks,” three incendiaries, three arrested for assault, and two suicides; at thirteen five burglars, one with a record, five thieves, five charged with assault, one “drunk,” one forger; at fourteen four burglars, seven thieves, one drunk enough to fight a policeman, six highway robbers, and ten charged with assault. And so on. The street had borne its perfect crop, and they were behind the bars every one, locked in with the boys who had done nothing worse than play hooky.   8
   It was a knock-out blow. Classification by measurement had ceased at the first broadside; the last gave us the truant school which the law demanded. To make the most of it, we shall apparently have to have a new deal. I tried to persuade the Children’s Aid Society to turn its old machinery to this new work. Perhaps the George Junior Republic would do better still. When there is room for every boy on the school bench, and room to toss a ball when he is off it, there will not be much left of that problem to wrestle with; but little or much, the peril of the prison is too great to be endured for a moment.   9
The Way to prevent the Manufacture of “Toughs.”
   It must have been about that time that I received a letter from an old friend who was in high glee over a statement in some magazine that I had evolved a “scientific theory” as to why boys go to the bad in cities. It was plain that he was as much surprised as he was pleased, and so was I when I heard what it was all about. That which they had pitched upon as science and theory was the baldest recital of the facts as seen from Mulberry Street. Beyond putting two and two together, there was very little reasoning about it. That such conditions as were all about us should result in making “toughs” of the boys was not strange. Rather, it would have been strange had anything else come of it. With the home corrupted by the tenement; the school doors closed against them where the swarms were densest, and the children thrown upon the street, there to take their chance; with honest play interdicted, every natural right of the child turned into a means of oppression, a game of ball become a crime for which children were thrust into jail, indeed, shot down like dangerous criminals when running away from the policeman who pursued them; 1 with dead-letter laws on every hand breeding blackmail and bringing the police and authority into disrepute; with the lawlessness of the street added to want of rule at home, where the immigrant father looked on helpless, himself dependent in the strange surroundings upon the boy and no longer his master—it seemed as if we had set out to deliberately make the trouble under which we groaned. And we were not alone in it. The shoe fits every large city more or less snugly. I know, for I have had a good deal to do with fitting it on the last two or three years; and often, when looking my audience over in lecturing about Tony and his hardships, I am thinking about Mulberry Street and the old days when problems, civic or otherwise, were farthest from my mind in digging out the facts that lay ready to the hand of the police reporter.   10
   In him as a reporter there may be no special virtue; but there is that in his work, in the haste and the directness of it, which compels him always to take the short cut and keeps it clear of crankery of every kind. The “isms” have no place in a newspaper office, certainly not in Mulberry Street. I confess I was rather glad of it. I had no stomach for abstract discussions of social wrongs; I wanted to right those of them that I could reach. I wanted to tear down the Mulberry Bend and let in the light so that we might the more readily make them out; the others could do the rest then. I used to say that to a very destructive crank who would have nothing less, upon any account, than the whole loaf. My “remedies” were an abomination to him. The landlords should be boiled in oil to a man; hanging was too good for them. Now he is a Tammany office-holder in a position where propping up landlord greed is his daily practice and privilege, and he thrives upon it. But I ought not to blame him. It is precisely because of his kind that Tammany is defenceless against real reform. It never can make it out. That every man has his price is the language of Fourteenth Street. They have no dictionary there to enable them to understand any other; and as a short cut out of it they deny that there is any other.   11
   It helped me vastly that my associations in the office were most congenial. I have not often been in accord with the editorial page of my own paper, the Sun. It seemed as if it were impossible for anybody to get farther apart in their views of most things on the earth and off it than were my paper and I. It hated and persecuted Beecher and Cleveland; they were my heroes. It converted me to Grant by its opposition to him. The sign “Keep off the grass!” arouses in its editorial breast no desire to lock up the man who planted it; it does in mine. Ten years and more I have striven in its columns to make the tenement out a chief device of the devil, and it must be that I have brought some over to my belief; but I have not converted the Sun. So that on the principle which I laid down before that I must be always fighting with my friends, I ought to have had a mighty good time of it there. And so in fact I did. They let me have in pretty nearly everything my own way, though it led us so far apart. As time passed and the duties that came to me took more and more of my time from my office work, I found that end of it insensibly lightened to allow me to pursue the things I believed in, though they did not. No doubt the old friendship that existed between my immediate chief on the Evening Sun, William McCloy, and myself, bore a hand in this. Yet it could not have gone on without the assent and virtual sympathy of the Danas, father and son; for we came now and then to a point where opposite views clashed and proved irreconcilable. Then I found these men, whom some deemed cynical, most ready to see the facts as they were, and to see justice done.   12
   I like to think of my last meeting with Charles A. Dana, the “Old Chief,” as he was always called in the office. In all the years I was on the Sun I do not think I had spoken with him a half dozen times. When he wanted anything of me personally, his orders were very brief and to the point. It was generally something—a report to be digested or the story of some social experiment—which showed me that in his heart he was faithful to his early love; he had been in his youth, as everybody knows, an enthusiastic reformer, a member of the Brook Farm Community. But if he thought I saw, he let no sign escape him. He hated shams; perhaps I was on trial all the time. If so, I believe that he meant to tell me in that last hand-shake that he had not found me wanting. It was on the stairs in the Sun office that we met. I was going up; he was coming down—going home to die. He knew it. In me there was no suspicion of the truth when I came upon him at the turn of the stairs, stumbling along in a way very unlike the usual springy step of the Old Chief. I hardly knew him when he passed, but as he turned and held out his hand I saw that it was Mr. Dana, looking somehow older than I had ever seen him, and changed. I took off my hat and we shook hands.   13
   “Well,” he said, “have you reformed everything to suit you, straightened out every kink in town?”   14
   “Pretty nearly,” I said, falling into his tone of banter; “all except the Sun office. That is left yet, and as bad as ever.”   15
   “Ha!” he laughed, “you come on! We are ready for you. Come right along!” And with another hearty hand-shake he was gone. He never saw the Sun office again.   16
   It was the only time he had ever held out his hand to me, after that first meeting of ours when I was a lonely lad, nearly thirty years before. That time there was a dollar in it and I spurned it. This time I like to believe his heart was in it. And I took it gladly and gratefully.   17
   The police helped—sometimes. More frequently we were at odds, and few enough in the rank and file understood that I was fighting for them in fighting the department. A friend came into my office, laughing, one day, and told me that he had just overheard the doorman at Police Headquarters say, as he saw me pass:—   18
   “Ugh! the hypocrite! See him take off his hat and then lay us out cold in his paper when he gets the chance.”   19
   He referred to my old-country habit of raising the hat in salutation instead of merely nodding or touching the brim. No doubt he expressed a feeling that was quite general at the time. But after Mulberry Street had taken notice of Roosevelt’s friendship for me there was a change, and then it went to the other extreme. It never quite got over the fact that he did not “ring me in” on President McKinley and the Government, or at least make me his private secretary and deputy boss of the Empire State while he was Governor. The Mulberry Street idea of friendship includes the loaves and fishes first and last, and “pull” is the Joss it worships. In fact I had several times to explain that Mr. Roosevelt had not “gone back on me” to save his political reputation. When at a public meeting he once spoke of me as his friend, a dozen policemen brought me copies of the paper containing “the notice,” with a frankly expressed wish to be remembered when I came into my own. About that time, being in the neighborhood, I strayed into the Bend one day to enjoy the sunlight there and the children sporting in it. At the curb stood a big policeman leisurely peeling an orange, to which he had helped himself from a cringing Italian’s cart. I asked him how were things in the Bend since the park had come. He eyed me very coldly, and said, “Bad, very bad.” At that I expressed my astonishment, saying that I was a reporter at Police Headquarters and had understood differently.   20
   “What paper?” he grunted insolently. I told him. He bestowed a look of mingled pity and contempt upon me.   21
   “Nix! mine friend,” he said, spreading his feet farther apart and tossing the peel at the Italian, who grinned with delight at such condescension. I regarded him expectantly. He was a very aggravating chap.   22
   “Did you say you were at Police Headquarters—for the Sun?” he observed at length.   23
   “Yes!” He shook his head.   24
   “Nixie! not guilty!” he said tauntingly.   25
   “Why, what do you mean?”   26
   “Haven’t you heard of Mr. Riis, Jacob Riis?”   27
   I said I had.   28
   “The Governor’s friend?”   29
   “Yes; what of it?”   30
   “Well, ain’t he at Headquarters for the Sun?”   31
   I said that was so.   32
   “Well?”   33
   I took out my card and handed it to him. “I am that man,” I said.   34
   For a fraction of a second the policeman’s jaw dropped; but he was a thoroughbred. His heels came together before, as it seemed, he could have read my name; he straightened up. The half-peeled orange fell from his hand and rolled into the gutter, covertly speeded by a dextrous little kick. The unhappy Italian, believing it a mishap, made haste to select the biggest and juiciest fruit on his stand, and held it out with a propitiatory bow, but he spurned him haughtily away.   35
   “These dagoes,” he said, elaborately placing my card in the sweat-band of his hat, “ain’t got no manners. It’s a hard place for a good man down here. It’s time I was a roundsman. You can do it. You’ve got de ‘pull.”’   36
   When Roosevelt had gone to Washington to help fit out the navy for the war with Spain, I spent a part of the winter there with him, and Mulberry Street took it for granted that I had at last been “placed” as I should have been long before. There was great amazement when I came back to take my old place. The truth was that I had gone partly to observe what went on at the capital for my paper, and partly to speed on the war, in which I was a hearty believer from the first. It was to me a means, first and last, of ending the murder in Cuba. One of the very earliest things I had to do with as a reporter was the Virginius massacre, and ever since it had been bloodshed right along. It was time to stop it, and the only way seemed to wrest the grip of Spain from the throat of the island. I think I never quite got over the contempt I conceived for Spain and Spanish ways when I read as a boy, in Hans Christian Andersen’s account of his travels in the country of the Dons, that the shepherds brought butter from the mountains in sheep’s intestines and measured them off in lengths demanded by the customers by tying knots upon them. What was to be expected from a country that sold butter by the yard? As the event showed, it ran its navies after the same fashion and was justly punished. I made friends that winter with Dr. Leonard Wood, whom we all came to know and admire afterwards as General and Governor Wood; and a fine fellow he was. He was Roosevelt’s friend and physician, and we spent many strenuous hours together, being in that mood.   37
   For the third time in my life, and the last, I wanted to go to the war, when they went, and oh! so badly. Not to fight,—I had had all I needed of that at home,—but to tell the truth about what was going on in Cuba. The Outlook offered me that post, and the Sun agreed heartily; but once more the door was barred against me. Two of my children had scarlet fever, my oldest son had gone to Washington trying to enlist with the Rough Riders, and the one next in line was engineering to get into the navy on his own hook. My wife raised no objection to my going, if it was duty; but her tears fell silently—and I stayed. It was “three times and out.” I shall never go to the war now unless in defence of my own home, which may God forbid. Within a year I knew that, had I gone then, I should most likely not have returned. I had received notice that to my dreams of campaigning in that way there was an end. Thankful that I had been spared, I yet took leave of them with a sigh; most illogically, for I hate the sight of human suffering and of brutal passions aroused. But deep down in my heart there is the horror of my Viking forefathers of dying in bed, unable to strike back, as it were. I know it is wicked and foolish, but all my life I have so wished to get on a horse with a sword, and slam in just once, like another Sheridan. I, who cannot sit on a horse! Even the one Roosevelt got me at Montauk that was warranted “not to bite or scratch” ran away with me. So it is foolishness, plain to see. Yet, so I might have found out which way I would really have run when the call came. I do hope the right way, but I never have felt quite sure.   38
   The casualties of war are not all on the battle-field. The Cuban campaign wrecked a promising career as a foreign correspondent which I had been building up for some ten or fifteen years with toilsome effort. It was for a Danish newspaper I wrote with much approval, but when the war came, they did not take the same view of things that I did, and fell to suppressing or mutilating my letters, whereupon our connection ceased abruptly. My letters were, explained the editor to me a year or two later when I saw him in Copenhagen, so—er-r—ultra-patriotic, so—er-r—youthful in their enthusiasm, that—huh! I interrupted him with the remark that I was glad we were young enough yet in my country to get up and shout for the flag in a fight, and left him to think it over. They must have aged suddenly over there, for they were not that way when I was a boy. The real fact was that somehow they could not get it into their heads that a European bully could be whipped in one round by “the States.” They insisted on printing ridiculous despatches about Spanish victories. I think there was something about codfish, too, something commercial about corks and codfish—Iceland keeping Spain on a fish diet in Lent, in return for which she corked the Danish beer—I have forgotten the particulars. The bottom fact was a distrust of the United States that was based upon a curiously stubborn ignorance, entirely without excuse in a people of high intelligence like the Danes. I tried hard as a correspondent to draw a reasonable, human picture of American affairs, but it seemed to make no impression. They would jump at the Munchausen stories that are always afloat, as if America were some sort of menagerie and not a Christian country. I think nothing ever aggravated me as did an instance of that kind the year Ben Butler ran for the Presidency. I had been trying in my letters to present the political situation and issues fairly, and was beginning to feel that they must understand, when I received a copy of my paper from Copenhagen and read there a “life” of General Butler, which condensed ran something like this:—   39
   “Mr. Butler was an ambitious young lawyer, shrewd and full of bold schemes for enriching himself. When the war with the South broke out, he raised all the money he could and fitted out a fleet of privateers. With this he sailed for New Orleans, captured the city, and, collecting all the silver spoons it contained, freighted his vessels with them, and returned to the North. Thus he laid the foundation for his great fortune, but achieved lasting unpopularity in the South, which will prevent his election to the Presidency.”   40
   I am not joking. That was how the story of the silver spoons looked in Danish a quarter of a century after the war. Really, now, what would you have done? I laughed and—well! made remarks by turns, and in the end concluded that there was nothing else that could be done except buckle to and try again; which I did.   41
   If I could not go to the war, I could at least go electioneering with Roosevelt when he came back and try to help him out the best I knew how in matters that touched the poor and their life, once he sat in Cleveland’s chair in Albany. I do not think he felt that as an added dignity, but I did and I told him so, whereat he used to laugh a little. But there was nothing to laugh at. They are men of the same stamp, not saints any more than the rest of us, but men with minds and honest wills, if they have different ways of doing things. I wish some Cleveland would come along again soon and give me another chance to vote the ticket which Tammany obstructs with its impudent claim that it is the Democratic party. As for Roosevelt, few were nearer to him, I fancy, than I, even at Albany. No doubt he made his mistakes like the rest of us, and when he did there were not wanting critics to make the most of it. I wish they had been half as ready to lend him a hand. We might have been farther on the road then. I saw how faithfully he labored. I was his umpire with the tailors, with the drug clerks, in the enforcement of the Factory Law against sweaters, and I know that early and late he had no other thought than how best to serve the people who trusted him. I want no better Governor than that, and I guess we shall want him a long time before we get one as good.   42
   I found out upon our electioneering tours that I was not a good stump-speaker, especially on the wing with five-minute stops of the train. It used to pull out with me inwardly raging, all the good things I meant to say unsaid. The politicians knew that trick better, and I left the field to them speedily. Thereafter I went along just for company. Only two or three times did I rise to the occasion. Once when I spoke in the square at Jamestown, N.Y., where I had worked as a young lad and trapped muskrats in the creek for a living. The old days came back to me as I looked upon that mighty throng, and the cheers that arose from it told me that I had “caught on.” I was wondering whether by any chance the old ship captain who finished me as a lecturer once was in it, but he was not; he was dead. Another time was in Flushing, Long Island. There was not room in the hall, and they sent me out to talk to the crowd in the street. The sight of it, with the flickering torch-light upon the sea of upturned faces, took me somehow as nothing ever had, and the speech I made from the steps, propped up by two policemen, took the crowd, too; it cheered so that Roosevelt within stopped and thought some enemy had captured the meeting. When he was gone, with the spirit still upon me I talked to the meeting in the hall till it rose and shouted. My political pet enemy from Richmond Hill was on the platform and came over to embrace me. We have been friends since. The memory of that evening lingers yet in Flushing, I am told.   43
   A picture from that day’s trip through Long Island will ever abide on my mind. The train was about to pull out from the station in Greenport, when the public school children came swarming down to see “Teddy.” He leaned out from the rear platform, grasping as many of the little hands as he could, while the train hands did their best to keep the track clear. Way back in the jostling, cheering crowd I made out the slim figure of a pale, freckled little girl in a worn garment, struggling eagerly but hopelessly to get near him. The stronger children pushed her farther back, and her mournful face was nearly the last of them all when Roosevelt saw her. Going down the steps even as the train started, he made a quick dash, clearing a path through the surging tide to the little girl, and taking her hand, gave it the heartiest shake of all, then sprinted for the departing car and caught it. The last I saw of Greenport was the poor little girl holding tight the hand her hero had shaken, with her face all one sunbeam of joy.   44
   I know just how she felt, for I have had the same experience. One of the things I remember with a pleasure which the years have no power to dim is my meeting with Cardinal Gibbons some years ago. They had asked me to come to Baltimore to speak for the Fresh Air Fund, and to my great delight I found that the Cardinal was to preside. I had always admired him at a distance, but during the fifteen minutes’ talk we had before the lecture he won my heart entirely. He asked me to forgive him if he had to go away before I finished my speech, for he had had a very exhausting service the day before, “and I am an old man, on the sunny side of sixty,” he added as if in apology.   45
   “On the shady side, you mean,” amended the Presbyterian clergyman who was on the committee. The Cardinal shook his head, smiling.   46
   “No, doctor! The sunny side—nearer heaven.”   47
   The meeting was of a kind to inspire even the dullest speaker. When I finished my plea for the children and turned around, there sat the Cardinal yet behind me, though it was an hour past his bed-time. He came forward and gave me his blessing then and there. I was never so much touched and moved. Even my mother, stanch old Lutheran that she is, was satisfied when I told her of it, though, in the nature of things, the idea of her son consorting in that way with principalities and powers in the enemy’s camp must have been a shock to her.   48
   Speaking of which, reminds me of the one brief glimpse into the mysteries of the universe I had while in Galesburg, Ill., the same year. I had been lecturing at Knox College, of which my friend John Finley was the President. It rained before the meeting, but when we came out, the stars shone brightly, and I was fired with a sudden desire to see them through the observatory telescope. The professor of astronomy took me into the dark dome and pointed the glass at Saturn, which I knew as a scintillating point of light, said to be a big round ball like our earth, and had taken on trust as a matter of course. But to see it hanging there, white and big as an apple, suspended within its broad and shining ring, was a revelation before which I stood awe-stricken and dumb. I gazed and gazed; between the star and its ring I caught the infinite depth of black space beyond; I seemed to see almost the whirl, the motion; to hear the morning stars sing together—and then like a flash it was gone. Crane my neck on my ladder as I might I could not get sight of it.   49
   “But where did she go?” I said, half to myself. Far down in the darkness came the old professor’s deep voice:—   50
   “That time you saw the earth move.”   51
   And so I did. The clockwork that made the dome keep up with the motion of the stars—of our world rather—had run down, and when Saturn passed out of my sight, as I thought, it was the earth instead which I literally saw move.   52
   And now that I am on my travels let me cross the ocean long enough to say that my digging among the London slums one summer only served to convince me that their problem is the same as ours, and is to be solved along the same lines. They have their ways, and we have ours, and each has something to learn from the other. We copied our law that enabled us to tear down slum tenements from the English statute under which they cleared large areas over yonder long before we got to work. And yet in their poor streets—in “Christian Street” of all places—I found families living in apartments entirely below the sidewalk grade. I found children poisoned by factory fumes in a charitable fold, and people huddled in sleeping-rooms as I had never seen it in New York. And when I asked why the police did not interfere, they looked at me, uncomprehending, and retorted that they were on their own premises—the factory, too—and where did the police come in? I told them that in New York they came in when and where they saw fit, and systematically in the middle of the night so that they might get at the exact facts. As for our cave-dwellers, we had got rid of them a long time since by the simple process of dragging out those who wouldn’t go and shutting the cellar doors against them. It had to be done and it was done, and it settled the matter.   53
   “I thought yours was a free country,” said my policeman conductor.   54
   “So it is,” I told him, “freedom to poison yourself and your neighbor excepted.” He shook his head, and we went on.   55
   But these were mere divergences of practice. The principle is not affected. It was clear enough that in London, as in New York, it was less a question of transforming human nature in the tenant than of reforming it in the landlord. At St. Giles I found side by side with the work-house a church, a big bath and wash-house, and a school. It was the same at Seven Dials. At every step it recalled the Five Points. To the one as to the other, steeped in poverty, and crime, had come the road-builder, the missionary, the school-teacher, and let light in together. And in their track was following, rather faster there than here as yet, the housing reformer with his atoning scheme of philanthropy and five per cent. That holds the key. In the last analysis it is a question of how we rate the brotherhood, what per cent we will take. My neighbor at table in my London boarding-house meant that, though he put it in a way all his own. He was a benevolent enough crank, but no friend of preaching. Being a crank, he condemned preachers with one fell swoop:—   56
   “The parsons!” he said; “my ’evings, what hare they? In hall me life hi’ve known only two that were fit to be in the pulpit.”   57
   Returning to my own country, I found the conviction deepening wherever the slum had got a grip, that it was the problem not only of government but of humanity. In Chicago they are setting limits to it with parks and playgrounds and the home restored. In Cincinnati, in Cleveland, in Boston, they are bestirring themselves. Indeed, in Boston they have torn down more foul tenements than did we in the metropolis, and with less surrender to the slum landlord. In New York a citizens’ movement paved the way for the last Tenement-House Commission, which has just finished its great work, and the movement is warrant that the fruits of that work will not be lost. Listen to the arraignment of the tenement by that Commission, appointed by the State:—   58
   “All the conditions which surround childhood, youth, and womanhood in New York’s crowded tenement quarters make for unrighteousness. They also make for disease.… From the tenements there comes a stream of sick, helpless people to our hospitals and dispensaries … from them also comes a host of paupers and charity seekers. Most terrible of all … the fact that, mingled with the drunken, the dissolute, the improvident, the diseased, dwell the great mass of the respectable workingmen of the city with their families.”   59
   This after all the work of twenty years! Yet the work was not wasted, for at last we see the truth. Seeing, it is impossible that the monstrous wrong should go unrighted and government of the people endure, as endure it will, I know. We have only begun to find out what it can do for mankind in the day when we shall all think enough about the common good, the res publica, to forget about ourselves.   60
   In that day, too, the boss shall have ceased from troubling. However gross he wax in our sight, he has no real substance. He is but an ugly dream of political distemper. Sometimes when I hear him spoken of with bated breath, I think of the Irish teamster who went to the priest in a fright; he had seen a ghost on the church wall as he passed it in the night.   61
   “And what was it like?” asked the priest.   62
   “It was like nothing so much as a big ass,” said Patrick, wide-eyed.   63
   “Go home, Pat! and be easy. You’ve seen your own shadow.”   64
   But I am tired now and want to go home to mother and rest awhile.   65

Note 1. Now, “The Battle with the Slum.” [ back ]


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