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An essay by George William Curtis

The Enlightened Observer

Title:     The Enlightened Observer
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The Enlightened Observer from Europe who is studying American institutions asked the Easy Chair the other day what was meant by the statement that a candidate for a high elective office had opened headquarters in the neighborhood of a nominating convention. The Enlightened Observer said that he had always supposed that such conventions were assemblies which nominated persons whose public services and personal ability and character had distinguished them among their fellow-citizens, and shown them to be especially fitted for the offices which were to be filled. "Am I mistaken," he asked, "in supposing that to be the theory of your institutions?"

The Easy Chair could not say that he was, and conceded that such was the theory.

"In other words," continued the Enlightened Observer, "a republic secures good government because it intrusts the government not to the chance of birth, which may give to Oliver Cromwell a son Richard, and make the heir of Alexander the Great an Alexander the Little, but because it calls to its great offices of every degree those citizens who have demonstrated their peculiar fitness."

"That is certainly the theory of our republican institutions," returned the Easy Chair.

"Well?" said the Enlightened Observer.

"Well?" echoed the Easy Chair.

"Yes, but why, then, does a candidate open headquarters?"

"Yes, certainly. Why--that is--it is to make himself known."

"But the theory seems to assume that he is known already. Is it that he performs public services at the headquarters, or exhibits there his character and abilities? Is not the time a little limited and the space somewhat inconvenient for such demonstrations? I am at a little loss. I can see that the personal appearance and manners of a candidate might be displayed favorably at a headquarters, and that, in a charming phrase of your country, he might dispense a generous hospitality in a hotel parlor, but how can he display his fitness for a high office in such narrow quarters as headquarters must be? Am I to understand that when Mr. John Jay was selected as a candidate for the Governorship of New York he had repaired previously to the place of nomination and had opened headquarters? Did General Washington pursue a similar course? If the services and character of a candidate have commended him to public favor and designated him as a suitable officer, why is not that enough?"

"Undoubtedly," answered the Easy Chair, "why isn't it? But I am afraid that you have not pursued your enlightened observations quite far enough, or you would have learned that in this country a kind providence is supposed to help those who help themselves, and that those who expect to have Governorships and Senatorships and other large and highly flavored political morsels offered to them on golden salvers and on bended knees will be seriously disappointed."

"I see," said, courteously, the Enlightened Observer, "that my excellent friend the Easy Chair is pleased to speak in metaphor. If I may penetrate it, he is declaring that great places are to be won like precious prizes, and do not drop into idle hands like fruit overripe. But if I may hold him to the point, is it not the theory of your institutions that it is services and character and ability that win the precious political prizes, and surely such qualities and services cannot be described as idle hands? I agree that providence helps those who help themselves, but who helps himself more than he who helps the entire community? And how does he help the community who opens headquarters to secure a prize for himself? Moreover, have I not heard that office should pursue the man, and not the man the office? Yet what is opening headquarters but pursuing office, as a hound a hare?"

The Easy Chair was obliged to suggest that there was no harm in knowing "the boys," and in showing the affability of a simple citizen "without airs," and making the acquaintance of important political personages, all of which the Enlightened Observer conceded, but still politely insisted that knowing the boys and showing affability and refraining from lofty demeanor did not demonstrate fitness for great place, and was a loss of proper personal dignity that ought not to be required of any one who had really approved himself as a suitable officer. He concluded that he might not have mistaken the theory, but he had certainly not apprehended the practice of our institutions.

"But surely," said the Easy Chair, "'tis but a small price to pay."

"True," said the Enlightened Observer, "it is a very small price; but I had not supposed that in the republic office was sold at any price. I thought that the good Santa Claus of public approval dropped it as a Christmas gift into the stocking of the most deserving. It seems, however, to be rather a raisin in snap-dragon--the prize of the toughest fingers."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Enlightened Observer