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The American Tradition

March 2023
4min read

As we are possibly just a little too fond of saying, our nation draws its greatest strength from the ancient traditions of American democracy. These traditions embody certain lofty standards of thought and of behavior, and we like to believe that in time of crisis we can rely upon them. Occasionally it almost seems as if we do so automatically, fondly trusting that some built-in nobility of aspiration and conduct will rescue us either from the results of our own folly or from the evils created by fellow citizens in whom, unaccountably, the traditions never took root.

Like most of our accepted beliefs, this one contains a good substratum of truth. Yet sometimes it pays to see just what these saving traditions are and where they can be found. Who are their guardians, anyway? How do the best of these traditions take shape in action? What are we called upon to do about them, and how do we know when we are actually doing it? Democracy’s traditions, although noble, can be vague; what happens when we need to make them concrete?

We can begin by studying what has already happened, and at times the record is somewhat surprising. For an illustration, consider Herbert Mitgang’s excellent new biography, The Man Who Rode the Tiger , which contains a first-rate object lesson.

Mr. Mitgang is telling the story of the late Judge Samuel Seabury, who fought long, tenaciously, and with much success to provide decent government for the people of New York City. He happily describes Judge Seabury as a twentieth-century man with eighteenth-century manners; and indeed if ever a man was fitted by birth and family background to be a guardian of the best American traditions it was this same Seabury—he was the great-great grandson, and namesake, of the first Episcopal bishop in the United States, and his ancestry ran back to John and Priscilla Alden, and altogether he was It. He was fully conscious of his family heritage—as Mr. Mitgang says, he “bore the Protestant ethic and the Anglo-Saxon legal traditions of his ancestors, not as a burden but as an escutcheon.” He was born in 1873, of a family which had very little money but which was rich in tradition, and toward the end of the nineteenth century he became a New York lawyer and set out to see what he could do.

He was a very good lawyer. In the end, he made a great deal of money, and he enjoyed the things you can do when you have a great deal of money. But making money was not his chief objective. He began as a devout single-tax man, a fighter for decent living conditions for men who have to work with their hands, a dedicated enemy of Tammany Hall. He served as unpaid counsel for various lowly folk who had got caught in the legal machinery of a heedless city; he became a judge, and made a reputation for fair dealing and plain speaking; he ran unsuccessfully for governor, and he had trouble getting along with two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, whose own family wrapped up a certain amount of the great democratic tradition in America. Finally, in the early iggo’s, he was made the spearhead for the investigation that tried to find out what was wrong with New York City’s government. It was here, of course, that his own capacity to speak for one of the noblest of our democratic traditions came into full flower.

The Man Who Rode the Tiger: the Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury , by Herbert Mitgang. J. B. Lippincott Co. 380 pp. $6.95.

What Seabury spoke for was the simple belief that public office is a public trust—the notion that a city’s government ought to represent the people rather than a set of special interests, the old-fashioned idea that it is wrong to cheat and lie and steal, the sturdy belief that if people are clearly shown what is wrong with their government they will find a way to do something about it. Judge Seabury got Mayor James Walker on the hook, and when he finished with him New York City also was finished with him, and Walker was a discredited ex-mayor.

Be it noted that Seabury brought to this task something more than a simple, old-fashioned desire to see justice done. He was uncommonly thorough. He put together a staff of expert investigators, kept telling them “Educate me,” and assembled such an immense and convincing array of facts that in the end his case proved itself. His dedication to his task was accompanied by a vast capacity for hard work and by a canny intelligence. He was not merely a quiet aristocrat with a New England conscience; he was also a skillful lawyer who knew precisely how to expose the wrongs that had gone unpunished so long.

So far the story follows a familiar pattern. A man of good family, born and bred to the highest democratic tradition, becomes indignant when he sees his native city being stolen blind by crooked politicians and devotes himself to the job of getting the crooks thrown out, jailed, or at least publicly discredited. But the long story of American politics proves clearly that this by itself is not enough. To “throw the rascals out” is good, but what happens after the rascals have been ousted is even more important. Too many reformers have rested on their oars, once that part of the hard pull was finished. Judge Seabury wanted to keep going, to help bring about the election of someone with both the will and the political savvy to provide good government.

And here comes the interesting switch in Mr. Mitgang’s story—that is, in the story of what actually happened in America’s biggest city.

Samuel Seabury found the ideal man, helped to get him elected as mayor of New York, and saw him give the metropolis the best government it has ever had … and the man who so completely embodied the virtues of the democratic tradition which Judge Seabury served was not an American of ancient lineage, born and bred to the noblest civic tradition, but the son of immigrants, a man of mixed Italian and Jewish descent, Fiorello La Guardia. It was precisely this flamboyant, tough, nonconformist fighter, who had come up from nowhere at all, who could strike hands with the descendant of John Alden to bring New York redemption from the scaly corruptionists who had so long had the city in their grip. La Guardia justified Seabury’s faith; the two of them together—as unlikely a combination as the story of American politics can display—justified the faith of millions.

You never quite know where you are going to find it. The oldest and simplest of the democratic traditions—that the people deserve decent government and that they will insist on getting it once qualified people show them how to do it—was abundantly justified here; and it found its embodiment in two strangely contrasting persons—the old-family civic aristocrat, and the no-family scrapper from Harlem who shared in his vision, his courage, and his dedication. Out of this blend comes America’s greatest strength.

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