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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Henry McElroy (1838–1918)

An Old War-Horse to a Young Politician

From “Atlantic Monthly,” 1880

MY DEAR NEPHEW: I was seventy years old yesterday, and although I feel as young as I ever did, I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that in spite of my feelings I really am an old man. So, since I must soon pass off the stage on which—if I say it who shouldn’t—I have long been a prominent figure, it is only natural that I should desire, in the absence of a son of my own, that my mantle should fall to a son of one of my blood. I believe you have good stuff in you. Your valedictory when you graduated, last summer, although containing too little that was practical to suit my taste, would have done credit to the average Cong—I was going to write Congressman; but I can justly go further than that. It would have done credit to the Washington journalists, who sometimes compose—that is to say, revise—speeches for some of us Congressmen. This, however, like the rest of my communication, is strictly between ourselves.

When I left you, on Commencement Day, I urged you to lose no time in getting into politics, promising that I would help you push your fortunes as occasion offered. Since then I have received a letter from you, in which you write that you have read “Story of the Constitution,” Benton’s “Thirty Years in the United States Senate,” Greeley’s “American Conflict,” two or three works on political economy, and De Tocqueville on America. I suppose there can be no objection to such reading. Likely enough it has its value. But what I particularly desire, my dear nephew, is that you should become a practical politician—a thoroughly practical politician. I never remember reading any of the works you have mentioned, or any like them, unless, indeed, you call Barnum’s “How to Make Money” a treatise on finance. And yet, cast your eyes over the salient points of my career. I have been alderman, supervisor, mayor, State representative, State senator, and Congressman. For many years I have been chairman of our State and county committees. I can hardly remember the time when I didn’t carry the vote of my own ward in my vestpocket and of my own city in my trousers-pocket, and I’ve got them there yet. For going on half a century I have had things pretty much my own way in caucuses and primaries, and the like. What has been the secret of my unusual success? I will try—in strict confidence, as you will understand—to give you some plain, blunt, non-partisan hints for your guidance in politics which may serve to answer the question.

I. Never allow yourself to lose sight of the fact that politics, and not poker, is our great American game. If this could be beaten into the heads of some presumably well-meaning but glaringly unpractical people, we should hear less idiotic talk about reform in connection with politics. Nobody ever dreams of organizing a reform movement in poker. How droll it would sound to read that “Hon. John Oakhurst, Hon. William Nye, and Hon. Ah Sin, in connection with other well-known citizens of California, are engaged in endeavoring to reform poker from the inside!” And yet political reform clubs, designed to reform politics from the inside or the outside, are springing up on all sides. Of course it is just as well not to attempt to argue the masses out of their deeply rooted notion that politics is what Noah Webster defines it to be, “that part of ethics which has to do with the regulation and government of a nation or state.” Ethics is very good in connection with politics. But then Webster, it must be remembered, was simply a learned lexicographer, and not a practical politician. No, no. Don’t try to reason with the masses in this matter. The public has no head for such things. It will not understand.

II. Mr. Lincoln, a very estimable and justly popular, but in some respects an impracticable man, formulated another widely diffused error in regard to politics. He held that ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. I maintain, on the contrary, that it is a government of politicians, by politicians, for politicians. If your political career is to be a success, you must understand and respect this distinction with a difference.

III. Not a few capable but unpractical people, when they fall to discussing our governmental system, argue that the existence of parties is necessary to the welfare of our country. But long experience has taught me that the more sensible way for a practical politician to look at it is that the existence of the country is necessary to the welfare of parties. Thank Heaven, my dear nephew, that we have a country!

IV. You have received your commission as postmaster of your village. A post-office is a capital political opening for a young man who has sense enough to discover how to make the right use of it. You will, of course, leave all matters touching the postal service to your deputy. Never forget that your pivotal duty as postmaster will be to nurse the party in your section. As a practical man, you must see, if you reflect a moment, that postmaster and local party master must be convertible terms with you if you expect to be approved by the great party leaders, and to become a great leader yourself some day. To be sure, if you find leisure, there can be nothing indelicate in your appearing at the post-office now and then and doing a few strokes of purely postal work. But take care that such service does not encroach upon the hours when you ought to be fostering the party boom. In your selection of clerks you will be guided primarily by a determination to have only such men around you as will register your will every time at caucuses and conventions. Should it turn out in any instance that you have been deceived in your man, be nice about the phrase with which you discharge him. I submit a formula which has been repeatedly tried, and generally found to work well. We will suppose the clerk who won’t answer is named John Doe. You will call him into your private office and address him substantially as follows: “Mr. Doe, I am compelled with all reluctance, at the call of duty, to dissever our relations, and must request you to file your resignation forthwith. During your connection with this office as letter-carrier you have displayed an ability and a fidelity, a grace of manner and a strength of character, that have endeared you to all your associates, and done not a little to elevate the tone of the entire American postal service. If I have brought myself to part with you, it is solely to the end that there may be greater homogeneousness of view, so to speak, in the office.” One of your predecessors used this formula with great satisfaction to himself, and apparently to those whom he decapitated. He always found, he told me, that the first part of it put the clerk to whom it was addressed in capital humor, while the “homogeneousness” dazed him to that extent that he walked out of the office minus his head, not appreciating what had been the matter, but having a nebulous impression that he had been killed by kindness.

V. I sincerely hope it is not necessary that I should counsel you always to vote the regular ticket, the whole regular ticket, and nothing but the regular ticket. Hold fast, I beseech of you, to the doctrine of the infallibility of your party in convention assembled. Delegates, like kings, “can do no wrong.” The voters who scratch ballots or bolt nominations are to be regarded as the bane of politics, just as certain other reformers have been the bane of religion. They all belong in the same category, and are all equally deserving of the execration of every practical man, as exponents of the pestiferous doctrine of the right of private judgment. And just here a word in reply to the familiar question, Would you vote for the devil if he received the party’s regular nomination? I have no hesitation in affirming that I certainly would. Let’s look at it. If the day ever comes when the devil is nominated, the other side will be pretty sure to run Gabriel against him. Of the two, my choice would be the devil. To be sure, it would not be an ideal nomination, but, then, neither is ours an ideal world. I am aware that the devil has split hoofs, pronounced horns, and a bifurcated tail. But do we choose candidates for their good looks? As to his moral character, I frankly admit it is not all I could desire; but after criticism has exhausted itself, the fact remains, conceded by both parties, that he is not as black as he is painted. On the other hand, he has many qualities that ought to commend him to practical men. He is self-made, he is thoroughly in earnest in all he undertakes, he is an untiring worker, he is one of the shrewdest of wire-pullers, he possesses vast and versatile accomplishments, he is unsurpassed in ability to find and manipulate the springs that move men, he has a positive genius for making friends. Gifted, popular, magnetic, at home in all circles, from the highest to the lowest, he would be certain to make a splendid run. As for Gabriel, I have only to say that, while his intellectual and moral endowments are undoubtedly of the highest order, there is great reason to fear that he would not succeed in the realm of practical politics. If elected to office, it is more than likely that he would prove more of a botheration than a boon to his party. He would be living up to the promises made during the canvass; he would resolutely decline to let well enough alone. Let me not be misunderstood. I yield to no one in my regard for Gabriel. But, as a practical man, I would feel called upon to vote against him, and do all I could for his opponent.

This communication has already exceeded reasonable limits, and yet I have only touched upon a few points. But perhaps I have written enough to start you right, to make you understand the nature of our great American game, and to put you in possession of the clue to the secret of playing it successfully. Be it yours to consult the expedient, leaving it to the purists of the party to consult the highly proper. Beware of those who take sentimental views of unsentimental matters. A man who would “rather be right than be President,” by all means ought to decline a presidential nomination, and run for a position in a theological seminary, a Sunday-school, or Vassar College; while he who holds that “one with God is a majority” antagonizes the system of reckoning which has come down to us from the fathers, and which has the approval of every practical inspector of American elections. Be practical in your politics, be practical, evermore be practical.

With fervent hopes and high anticipations of your future, I subscribe myself your affectionate uncle,

——— ————.
To ——— ———, Esq.