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America: Curator Of British Political Relics
An English observer says our party workings, patronage, sheriffs., and grand juries are museum pieces from Britain’s past
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
The Supreme Court itself, in some ways the most un-English of American institutions, is yet in a sense a lineal descendant of the Curia Regis , It continues the medieval conception of legislation, that of interpreting an existing canon of laws and procedures in the light of a changing society. There was no inevitability about England’s choice of the route of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. Even though the Tudors had developed the principle rather far—with statutes for everything from the establishment of the king at the head of the Church to the boiling of the Bishop of Rochester’s cook—it was still possible for Lord Chief Justice Coke, in the reign of James I, to claim that the great principles of common law overrode inconsistent legislation. While England did not take up Coke’s cue, America did, and on Coke’s interpretation of English constitutional history (which was often faulty as to scholarship) America is in the main line.
The American system of patronage is in the finest and best-pedigreed English tradition, now largely extinct in the land of its origin. The Americans make great use of high-sounding or humble-sounding sinecures as a means of providing public incomes or pensions to dependents for men without whose fulltime party activity the political organizations would never keep going. The method will be familiar to students of feudal serjeanties [lands granted under obligations of various personal services to a king or lord] and of eighteenth-century English politics. Readers of Edwin O’Connor’s novel, The Last Hurrah , about the declining days of a big city boss, will remember that provision is even made for the maintenance in some unexacting office of a court jester—the equivalent, one must suppose, of that twelfth-century Rolland who was given a manor by the king in serjeanty, for which, once a year at the king’s feast, “ debuet facere unum saltum, et siffletum et unum bumbulum ”—he must make a jump, a whistle, and a vulgar noise.
Many of the old, picturesque, political sinecures were done away with in England at the very end of the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke and his movement for economical reform. It is a curious thing that, on a visit to Chicago about three years ago, I came across what was termed an economical reform group in the Chicago City Council, one of the most anomaly-ridden bodies in America. Members of this group, headed by Alderman Robert E. Merriam, were challenging items that turned up year after year in the city budget. There was the famous case of the 28 chauffeurs of gas meter readers. The inquisitive reformers asked why gas meter readers could not drive their own cars. They were told that heavy slabs sometimes had to be moved in order to read the meter and a second man was needed, ft was pointed out that nearly all the chauffeurs were women. The explanation given was that the chauffeurs were often the wives of the readers and the wives in fact read while the readers moved slabs. It was pointed out that most of the women chauffeurs were widows. It emerged in fact that they were nearly all elderly party officials or widows or dependents of officials; none of them actually drove the cars; they hired drivers at a much smaller fee than they were paid themselves to do the job. This is purest medieval serjeanty. The result of the efforts of the economical reform group was that the council, heavily dominated by party officials, raised the salaries of gas meter readers’ chauffeurs.
Political patronage in America and the character of party politics are in fact much what they were in England for by far the greater part of English parliamentary history. It is only in the last hundred years or so that English institutions, unprotected by written constitutions, have changed in revolutionary fashion. Take, for example, the letter from Representative Wright Patman of Texas to one of his constituents, published by the Reporter magazine not so long ago: a long recital of all the favors Mr. Patman had done for this man and the jobs he had secured for him and his relatives, ending with a bitter complaint about the political ingratitude with which this assiduity had been rewarded. Change a few names and this could have come straight from the files of that indefatigable eighteenth-century borough-monger, the Duke of Newcastle.