Rhode Islanders have good reason not to trust our government, as our corrupt political system remains much the same as it was over a century ago, as documented in Lincoln Steffens’ ‘1905’ famous article about “Rhode Island: A State for Sale,” written when my great grandfather, Dr. Lucius F. C. Garvin served as Governor of Rhode Island.
Although, written almost 109 years ago, the behavior that Steffens describes is parallel to today in reemphasizing that lack of transparency and accountability are not new issues with RI government; and that favoritism, greed, opportunity, use and gain of money, bribery, look the other way when the law is broken, continues and exists in all forms of our government presently, just as it did then.
Steffens’ political history lesson is a powerful tool for Rhode Islanders to have a better understanding of Rhode Island’s political DNA…because nothing has changed in this state!
The following excerpts are a must read…in understanding how the political system in Rhode Island was born and bred on corruption and why ~ the fight against it must continue ~ to this day!
(still) Fed Up in RI ©
The text below are excerpts from Steffens’ full article found here the Internet Archive and Google Books’
RHODE ISLAND: A CORRUPTED PEOPLE
SHOWING THAT AMERICAN CITIZENS CAN BE BOUGHT
(CHEAP) TO SELL OUT THEIR CITIES AND STATES
By Lincoln Steffens • February 1905
THE political condition of Rhode Island is notorious, acknowledged, and it is shameful. But the Rhode Islander resents the interest of his neighbors. Our evils are our troubles,” he says; “they don’t concern the rest of you. Why should we be singled out? We are no worse than others. We are better than some; we want to set things right, but can’t. Conditions are peculiar.”
Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.”
It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far – In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.
The conditions are peculiar. As the Rhode Islanders say, their State is peculiar in many ways. But it is American. The smallest of the States, it is one of the biggest in our history. One of the “Original Thirteen States,” It was the first (May 4,1776) to declare Its independence of Great Britain, and the last (May 29, 1790) to give allegiance to the United States, So the American spirit of commercial enterprise and political independence has burned high in Rhode Island. There is nothing peculiar about that, and there is nothing peculiar about the general result of the corruption of the State.
Rhode Island is an oligarchy. There is one peculiarity about the Rhode Island oligarchy, however. It is constitutional. The oligarchies of other States were grafted upon constitutional democracies. Rhode Island never was a democracy, and in that peculiarity lies the peculiar significance of this State to the rest of us.
“Leading citizens” have made Rhode Island what it is. They always have ruled there. I have called the State an oligarchy. It used to be an aristocracy.
What happened? The “best people” continued to rule. The “best people” of the period after the new constitution were manufacturers, but their fine old houses stand today as witnesses not only to their wealth, but also to a refined taste. There can be no doubt that they came as near forming a real aristocracy as commercialism can produce. They certainly were just the kind of men that many theorists say should have control of government.
Well, they got control in Rhode Island. How? With money. Aristocrats though they were, they were businessmen first, and they went after the key to control in a businesslike way. They bought up the towns. The “best people” sent offers of bribes to the good people of the countryside, and the good people took the bribes and let the best people run the government. It was a commercial aristocracy that corrupted the American stock in Rhode
Island and laid the foundation of the present financial and political System of corruption in the State.
There is no doubt about this. The corruption of the voters of the towns of Rhode Island is so ancient and so common that Governor Lucius F.C. Garvin addressed in March, 1903, a “Special Message concerning Bribery in Elections to the Honorable, the General Assembly,” etc.:
GENTLEMEN: … That bribery exists to a great extent in the elections of this State is a matter of common knowledge. No general election passes without, in some sections of the State, the purchase of votes by one or both of the great political parties. It is true that the results of the election may not often be changed, so far as the candidates on the State ticket are concerned, but many Assemblymen occupy the seats they do by means of purchased votes.
In a considerable number of our towns bribery is so common and has existed for so many years that the awful nature of the crime has ceased to impress. In some towns the bribery takes place openly; is not called bribery, nor considered a serious matter. The money paid to the voter, whether $2, $5, or $20, is spoken of as “payment for his time.” The claim that the money given to the elector is not for the purpose of influencing his vote, but is compensation for time lost in visiting the polls, is the merest sophistry, and should not deceive any adult citizen of ordinary intelligence. It is well known that in such towns, when one political party is supplied with a corruption fund and the other is without, the party so provided invariably elects its Assembly ticket, thus affording positive proof that the votes are bought and
the voters bribed. ….”
Bribery, bribery of the people, is a custom of the country in Rhode Island; it is an institution, and, like the church or property, it is not safe to attack it; they do not dare. This may sound preposterous, and there is a public opinion against it…The Bishop declared that the country clergy could not “speak out without coming to financial grief and ruin,” and he proposed “doing something, so that no one will dare threaten local ministers with the loss of their positions.”
Back of the vote-buyers are the most powerful interests of the State, the friends of “all that is,”… The head men in the churches, the leading citizens in the State, the captains of finance and industry, …
What is this precious System that can compel the respect, of silence at least, even from the Church?
Business men are back of the politicians that rule most corrupt States; in Rhode Island they are in plain sight, and everybody knows them and their operations. Here, also, there are politicians to “do the dirty work,” but the very politicians in this State are not of the “low-down” sort. So purely a business government is this that the officers and legislators, the bosses and the leaders, are typically native-born citizens of professional and business occupations…none the less the boss is a lawyer.
” I am an attorney for certain clients and look out for their interests before the Legislature. I never solicit any business,’ added General Brayton, without a smile. ‘It all comes to me unsought, and if I can handle it I accept the retainer.”
What is your power in the Legislature that enables you to serve your clients? ‘Well, you see, in managing the campaign every year I am in a position to be of service to men all over the State. I help them to get elected, and, naturally, many warm friendships result, then when they are in a position to repay me they are glad to do it.’
The elected Governors of Rhode Island are called “administrative mummies.” They have sat for years without power and without homage in the State House, while across the hall, in the office of the High Sheriff, Boss Brayton was the State. He directed the General Assembly. His word was law. He did not have to “dicker, trade, and buy,” there was no “addition, division, and silence” for him. He handled the campaign funds of “the party,” and with them the voters were bought at the polls. The legislator returned by the electors came bought.
When the General Assembly met he directed its labors, and his masterfulness is unprecedented. A good-natured, generous man, he adopted a cross, surly tone, which, alternating with kindness, made men fear and like him, too. Not at all vindictive, he punished severely as a matter of policy. If a member of the Legislature disobeyed him, he would say, “That man shan’t come back,” and that man rarely could be renominated and reelected.
Such was the discipline of a coarse man made peevish by too much power. The only wonder is that men put up with it. But Brayton could reward, too. He had “success” as well as “failure” to bestow. The General Assembly “elects” judges, sheriffs, and fills most of the offices in between. It is the road to success, and Brayton has made it a rule to send on to these higher offices, even to the Supreme Court of the State, men who have served him in the General Assembly, thus controlled and thus disciplined.
The law allows legislators to serve as district judges while sitting in the Legislature, and they do. The effect on the courts of all this is not for me to discuss (it is said to be “not so bad as you would think”). The effect on the Legislature is to make it absolutely subservient to the boss, who really appoints to all these offices, and thus controls all the patronage of the State.
More than that, he has business to give — business that is not political. It puzzled me at first to find that there was so little bribery in a Legislature so corruptly devised. The pay of Senators and Representatives was small, and some of them served for years without the reward of promotion to the bench or any other office. The chairman of a most important committee explained it all frankly to me. There was some bribery, he said, but it wasn’t typical. When he first opened his law office, a small corporation offered him $5,000, besides his fee, if he could put through the Legislature an amendment to their charter. William G.Roelker, the Senator at the head of the committee that would decide, said it should not pass. The young lawyer did not know Brayton, but he went to him and told him all about his business.
I told Brayton,” he said, “just how it was; that I wanted that $5,000, and after talking a long time to me, the General said he’d see about it; for me to come the next day. I went at the appointed time and Brayton was out. I was ‘hot,’ till a friend of mine came up and said my bill was through. Brayton had done it before he said he would, and when I offered to divide the $5,000 with him, he nearly threw me out of his office. But he threw me into politics all right. He knew he was putting me under obligations forever; oh, he was shrewd all right. But wouldn’t you go the limit for a man that gave you your first lift like that?
I have heard thoughtful Rhode Islanders say that by such methods, by a cynical tone with young men and sneers at their college education and high ideals, by assisting them in “crooked business” and getting his corporations to employ the good fellows “and ignore the fools,” General Brayton has corrupted more of the youth of the State than any man that ever lived in it — Brayton and his business backers — the men and interests he *says* he represents.
For Brayton was the front, not the head, of the System. Say what you will about the “boss,” no one man can do what any American boss has done without the powerful backing of the “vested interests” of a community. Brayton had great personal power ; he “organized” the Republican party; he systematized the corruption of voters; he chose legislators; he organized the General Assembly and ran it; he has gradually altered the government of the State. But he did not do this for his own uses. Brayton is not rich. He says himself that he took “fees” for legislation, but they were fees, not fortunes. Like the voters of Rhode Island, like the local leaders, like the legislators, the boss of Rhode Island was cheap.
Who are “the party” in Rhode Island? As I have said above, they are and they always have been the “leading business men” of the State.
The cost to the character of the people of the State is heavy, but never mind; Rhode Island has what honest business men of this country have long honestly said we ought to have in all States and all cities in the United States,a business government – of the businessmen, by the business men, and for the business men. What have the Rhode Island business men done with it?
You don’t have to have money for big as you do for small business; influence will do, financial and political “pull.” And it was as such that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee came in touch with Wall Street, the trusts, and the so-called moneyed interests. It was natural for a Rhode Islander to think of him for such business as Perry had before him.
Rhode Island has among its other preposterous institutions a post-election session of the Legislature. The General Assembly meets in the winter, and having done all it dares, adjourns till after election day in the fall; then the expiring body, no longer answer able at the polls, does what the “power behind the power” directs.
They made these fortunes out of their political power, but, as one of their defenders said, they did it without breaking a law or committing a crime. But how could they commit a crime? They were above the law. It was their law; they made it.
Of course, they abused the law; they abused their legislative powers in the General Assembly, but they did this in the interest of business. “This is a business country, and the government is there to help business.” Is it? An ex-official of the United State Treasury Department, who now is a prominent banker, said that to me once, and it is a common view taken by business men of the corruption of government in the interest of business. But is that what “the government is there for”? I think not. I think that it is this legitimate, business graft, not police blackmail, which is the chief cause of our political corruption, but this is no place for “academic” reflections.
The next question is, what did they do with the rest of their power? They ruled; how did they rule? Suppose that it was right for them to rule and, ruling, to grant themselves extraordinary privileges. We hear that we cannot have the services in politics and government of able business men without paying for it. We hear that we cannot have the services in politics and government of able business men without paying for it. What have the business rulers of Rhode Island given in return?
The old manufacturers, having got what they wanted, a protective tariff, gave loyal allegiance to — what? To the State, to the United States? No, to “the party,” to the Republican party. They let Brayton do as he pleased with the State. So with the railroad. The New York, New Haven and Hartford has “about all that it wants,”but for “protection” in those bribe-bought rights, for license to break or “beat the law,” it supports the System. That is the way it continues to pay the people of the State, by helping to keep the State corrupt.
Boss Brayton could do what he would with what was left. They didn’t care apparently. And that was Brayton’s business, to sell the rest. A man could go to Rhode Island and, if he respected the rights of the trolley crowd, he needn’t pay any attention to the rights of the people of the State.
Rhode Island was, and it is, a State for sale. In other words, these businessmen’s business government was a government of boodle. Having their “legitimate graft,” they let the rest be held for sale to other business men who applied with — fees. Incredible?
Senator Aldrich declared to me, in the face of all this, that his government of Rhode Island was “good government.”
The worst case of “good government,” however, is that of Block Island. This ocean community has a population of 1,396, almost all descended from the 16 original families that settled there. They always have had what they call a “king.” The reigning king is Christopher E. Champlin, State Senator and a ” Democrat.” But Champlin “stood in” with Brayton, and this is what Brayton’s business system permitted Champlin to do to his own people in his own town: The chief business of the Block Islanders is that of hotel keeping. Champlin owns one of the largest hotels. Most of the traffic and most of the hostelries are at the eastern end of the island ; Champlin’s hotel is at the other end. Near it is the ” Great Salt Pond,” which the Senator proposed to make a harbor of by opening a breach to the ocean. The United States Government said it was not a feasible scheme; the channel could be made, but the sand drift of the seashore would close it. The State authorized the town to undertake the work, the State to pay part, the town the rest with money loaned by the State from school funds. Year by year, fresh appropriations had to be made to keep open the breach, till the State had spent $129,123.90, the town $62,000. Mr. Edward M. Sullivan, a young lawyer whom Governor Garvin appointed a commissioner to investigate the situation, reported that “the harbor is used exclusively by excursion steamboats and island craft,” for which there was already a haven. “Some local interest more influential than the demands of coastwise commerce … actuated those appropriations. The opening of Great Salt Pond was manifestly designed by its promoters, who are the principal owners of the land and its vicinity, to transfer the business center… to the head of Great Salt Pond …. Each of these appropriations was made in the closing hours of the session … and were not included in the appropriation bill of the committee of finance of any year. No report of the expenditure was made by the town council or the State committee … There has been no public bidding or competition for the work, which has been done throughout by one contractor,” etc., etc.
Besides this work, Champlin received State authority to build an electric railway line between the two ends of the island. Champlin made the town borrow at four percent, the money on which the road was to pay four percent. The town pays its interest; but the horse-cars, which are all there is of the electric railway company, have never made any accounting. Also, in much the same way, he had the town vote a steamboat, which he ordered of such a draft that it could enter his but not the town harbor. The town passed the legal limit of indebtedness, and the citizens were worried, but Champlin “owns” the council of five members — his brother, his father-in-law, another relative, and two loyal followers of his. The “town” voted his measure, and it might as well, for if it failed to the Legislature would. Brayton’s General Assembly enacts special legislation so freely that I had almost forgotten to mention this absurdity explicitly. Besides the police of Providence and Newport, the State has taken the election machinery and many other local offices and functions from municipalities that have “gone Democratic,” and where it has set up bipartisan boards. Republicans select the Democrats and thus use this power to corrupt the minority organization. The General Assembly, corrupt itself, is a corrupting upper council for every municipality in the State, as Block Island illustrates: A majority of the voters then declared, six years or so ago, under the local option law, for absolute prohibition on the island, but Champlin put through the General Assembly a special act permitting the sale of liquor on Block Island. Again, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrested a street-car driver for driving the pitiful horses that draw the miserable cars of the Champlin line. The General Assembly passed a special act which prevented such interference by the society in this one town!
They will tell you in Rhode Island that Block Island is an exceptional case. It isn’t. It is typical; on a small scale it is like the case of Providence. But suppose we grant that it is extraordinary — it happened, it was possible. Doesn’t it show that if you or I should go to a small town of Rhode Island, get political control, and send ourselves to the General Assembly, we could do what we would to our town?
Both parties betrayed the common interests of this State. Generally speaking, the people of Rhode Island are represented only by individuals and they can do nothing but protest. One of these protestants was Dr. Garvin, but he was Governor of the State and powerless.
This country doctor is the most singular figure in American politics. A New Englander reared down South, he attended a Friends’ school, and traces of all these influences are marked in his character. A single-taxer, an individualist, an advocate of the “popular initiative for constitutional amendments” – this sweet-tempered radical who has stood for every reform that looked in the direction of democracy, marched, unmoved by ridicule, abuse, or defeat, without a sign of anger or of pain, straight into the confidence of a majority of the voters of this conservative New England community.
When the slowly rising discontent in the State approached the height of a majority, the Democratic party nominated Dr. Garvin, and his party, with help from independent Republicans, Prohibitionists, Socialists — all the opposition to the System that usually scatters, voted for him. He was elected in 1902 and again in 1903. He was elected as a protest, however, and that is all he has been.
A Governor like Dr. Garvin would have made his own appointments, but Brayton and the System had seen Governor Garvin coming. They stifled the office before he got into it.
When this Aldrich-Perry-Brayton company foresaw that the people might elect a Governor to represent the common interests of the State, they had the appointive power transferred to the Senate. They left it so that a “safe” Republican Governor, obedient to them, might seem to appoint, but not a “dangerous” Democrat like Dr. Garvin.
Such, then, is the government of Rhode Island. What is the matter? What is the cure? The local reformers think that these very features which other reformers yearn for are the cause of the Rhode Island troubles, and that the constitution, “which did it,” must be changed.
Other States, with constitutions as ingenious as the best that the reformers in Rhode Island can hope for, have developed essentially the same System. The Enemies of the Republic will overcome any obstacle that is merely constitutional, legal, or mechanical.
The trouble lies deeper, and the cure must cut deeper. We have blamed our laws and our constitution long enough, and in turn we have charged our disgrace to our foreign population, to the riffraff of the cities, to our politicians, to our business men.
Are they alone at fault? I cannot see it so. It seems to me that, in one way or another, we all are at fault.
The provision of the Rhode Island constitution which lodged the dominant power out in the country, simply pointed to the farmer as the first man to corrupt; and he proved corruptible only because the strain came hardest upon him. His power should be spread out over the whole population, but then the pressure will bear hardest upon the political representatives of the people, and we know from other States that the representatives will sell, if there are offers to buy; and we know that the business representatives will offer to buy. And we know that we all will condone or submit, for some consideration— cash or protection, office or friendship, party loyalty or comfort. The best hope of Rhode Island, for example, should be in the leadership of the old manufacturing families, and the best of this aristocratic class have voted for Dr. Garvin.
They told me, these gentlemen, that Aldrich did not represent them or their State. “He may represent our corrupt towns and your own New York,” they said, “but he doesn’t represent Rhode Island!” Yet Governor Garvin was defeated this year (by some 500 votes) because a Republican President had to be elected, and a Legislature to return to the United States Senate the arch-representative of protected, privileged business. (Dr. Garvin was renominated for Governor in 1905 at the head of a fusion ticket, and he and his ticket were defeated by an increased majority for the System’s ticket.)
Aldrich does represent Rhode Island, and that is what is the matter with Rhode Island, and that is what is the matter with Aldrich. And he represents the rest of us, and that is what is the matter with all of us. Rhode Island will have reform when we all have reform; when we are all willing to make sacrifices for the sake of our country and our self-respect;
The Democratic party may prove a good engine for the work ahead, but the notion of those of its leaders who think to restore pure, representative democracy by buying up the people for a year or two, is American corruption carried to the limit of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy. There is no reform but reform, and reform begins at home — with all of us. •
HON. LUCIUS FAYETTE CLARK GARVIN, M. D., (November 13, 1841 – October 2, 1922) , he was elected Governor of the State of Rhode Island, in November, 1902, reelected in 1903, 1904, 1905, thirteen times elected to the General Assembly as representative, and three times as State Senator. He was the Democratic candidate for Congress from the Second Rhode Island district, in 1894, 1896, 1898, 1900 and 1906, defeated each time, but always polling a large vote in excess of the normal Democratic number.
Florence Garvin (February 27, 1876—July 10, 1968), the daughter of former Rhode Island Governor Lucius F. C. Garvin, was a women’s rights activist and a candidate for United States Vice President in the 1932 and 1936 presidential elections. She was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the head of the Rhode Island College Equal Suffrage League and Third Vice-President of the Women’s National Single Tax League.