Forgive me! I did not intend to wander away. I meant to keep to my
subject–but the moment I began to talk of politics in the country I was
beset by a compelling vision of Charles Baxter coming out of his shop in
the dusk of the evening, carrying his curious old reflector lamp and
leading the way down the road to the schoolhouse. And thinking of the
lamp brought a vision of the joys of Baxter’s shop, and thinking of the
shop brought me naturally around to politics and presidents; and here I
am again where I started!
Baxter’s lamp is, somehow, inextricably associated in my mind with
politics. Being busy farmers, we hold our caucuses and other meetings in
the evening and usually in the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is
conveniently near to Baxter’s shop, so we gather at Baxter’s shop.
Baxter takes his lamp down from the bracket above his bench, reflector
and all, and you will see us, a row of dusky figures, Baxter in the
lead, proceeding down the roadway to the schoolhouse. Having arrived,
some one scratches a match, shields it with his hand (I see yet the
sudden fitful illumination of the brown-bearded, watchful faces of my
neighbours!) and Baxter guides us into the schoolhouse–with its shut-in
dusty odours of chalk and varnished desks and–yes, leftover lunches!
Baxter’s lamp stands on the table, casting a vast shadow of the chairman
on the wall.
“Come to order,” says the chairman, and we have here at this moment in
operation the greatest institution in this round world: the institution
of free self-government. Great in its simplicity, great in its
unselfishness! And Baxter’s old lamp with its smoky tin reflector, is
not that the veritable torch of our liberties?
This, I forgot to say, though it makes no special difference–a caucus
would be the same–is a school meeting.
You see, ours is a prolific community. When a young man and a young
woman are married they think about babies; they want babies, and what
is more, they have them! and love them afterward! It is a part of the
complete life. And having babies, there must be a place to teach them to
Without more explanation you will understand that we needed an addition
to our schoolhouse. A committee reported that the amount required would
be $800. We talked it over. The Scotch Preacher was there with a plan
which he tacked up on the blackboard and explained to us. He told us of
seeing the stone-mason and the carpenter, he told us what the seats
would cost, and the door knobs and the hooks in the closet. We are a
careful people; we want to know where every penny goes!
“If we put it all in the budget this year what will that make the rate?”
inquires a voice from the end of the room.
We don’t look around; we know the voice. And when the secretary has
computed the rate, if you listen closely you can almost hear the buzz of
multiplications and additions which is going on in each man’s head as he
calculates exactly how much the addition will mean to him in taxes on
his farm, his daughter’s piano his wife’s top-buggy.
And many a man is saying to himself:
“If we build this addition to the schoolhouse, I shall have to give up
the new overcoat I have counted upon, or Amanda won’t be able to get the
That’s _real_ politics: the voluntary surrender of some private good for
the upbuilding of some community good. It is in such exercises that the
fibre of democracy grows sound and strong. There is, after all, in this
world no real good for which we do not have to surrender something. In
the city the average voter is never conscious of any surrender. He never
realises that he is giving anything himself for good schools or good
streets. Under such conditions how can you expect self-government? No
service, no reward!
The first meeting that I sat through watching those bronzed farmers at
work gave me such a conception of the true meaning of self-government as
I never hoped to have.
“This is the place where I belong,” I said to myself.
It was wonderful in that school meeting to see how every essential
element of our government was brought into play. Finance? We discussed
whether we should put the entire $800 into the next year’s budget or
divide it paying part in cash and bonding the district for the
remainder. The question of credit, of interest, of the obligations of
this generation and the next, were all discussed. At one time long ago I
was amazed when I heard my neighbours arguing in Baxter’s shop about the
issuance of certain bonds by the United States government: how
completely they understood it! I know now where they got that
understanding. Right in the school meetings and town caucuses where they
raise money yearly for the expenses of our small government! There is
nothing like it in the city.
The progress of a people can best be judged by those things which they
accept as matters-of-fact. It was amazing to me, coming from the city,
and before I understood, to see how ingrained had become some of the
principles which only a few years ago were fiercely-mooted problems. It
gave me a new pride in my country, a new appreciation of the steps in
civilisation which we have already permanently gained. Not a question
have I ever heard in any school meeting of the necessity of educating
every American child–at any cost. Think of it! Think how far we have
come in that respect, in seventy–yes, fifty–years. Universal education
has become a settled axiom of our life.
And there was another point–so common now that we do not appreciate the
significance of it. I refer to majority rule. In our school meeting we
were voting money out of men’s pockets–money that we all needed for
private expenses–and yet the moment the minority, after full and honest
discussion, failed to maintain its contention in opposition to the new
building, it yielded with perfect good humour and went on with the
discussion of other questions. When you come to think of it, in the
light of history, is not that a wonderful thing?
One of the chief property owners in our neighbourhood is a rather
crabbed old bachelor. Having no children and heavy taxes to pay, he
looks with jaundiced eye on additions to schoolhouses. He will object
and growl and growl and object, and yet pin him down as I have seen the
Scotch Preacher pin him more than once, he will admit that children (“of
course,” he will say, “certainly, of course”) must be educated.
“For the good of bachelors as well as other people?” the Scotch
Preacher will press it home.
“Certainly, of course.”
And when the final issue comes, after full discussion, after he has
tried to lop off a few yards of blackboard or order cheaper desks or
dispense with the clothes-closet, he votes for the addition with the
rest of us.
It is simply amazing to see how much grows out of these discussions–how
much of that social sympathy and understanding which is the very
tap-root of democracy. It’s cheaper to put up a miserable shack of an
addition. Why not do it? So we discuss architecture–blindly, it is
true; we don’t know the books on the subject–but we grope for the big
true things, and by our own discussion we educate ourselves to know why
a good building is better than a bad one. Heating and ventilation in
their relation to health, the use of “fad studies”–how I have heard
those things discussed!
How Dr. North, who has now left us forever, shone in those meetings, and
Charles Baxter and the Scotch Preacher–broad men, every one–how they
have explained and argued, with what patience have they brought into
that small schoolhouse, lighted by Charles Baxter’s lamp, the grandest
conceptions of human society–not in the big words of the books, but in
the simple, concrete language of our common life.
“Why teach physiology?”
What a talk Dr. North once gave us on that!
“Why pay a teacher $40 a month when one can be had for $30?”
You should have heard the Scotch Preacher answer that question! Many a
one of us went away with some of the education which we had come,
somewhat grudgingly, to buy for our children.
These are our political bosses: these unknown patriots, who preach the
invisible patriotism which expresses itself not in flags and oratory,
but in the quiet daily surrender of private advantage to the public
There is, after all, no such thing as perfect equality; there must be
leaders, flag-bearers, bosses–whatever you call them. Some men have a
genius for leading; others for following; each is necessary and
dependent upon the other. In cities, that leadership is often perverted
and used to evil ends. Neither leaders nor followers seem to
understand. In its essence politics is merely a mode of expressing human
sympathy. In the country many and many a leader like Baxter works
faithfully year in and year out, posting notices of caucuses, school
meetings and elections, opening cold schoolhouses, talking to
candidates, prodding selfish voters–and mostly without reward.
Occasionally they are elected to petty offices where they do far more
work than they are paid for (we have our eyes on ’em); often they are
rewarded by the power and place which leadership gives them among their
neighbours, and sometimes–and that is Charles Baxter’s case–they
simply like it! Baxter is of the social temperament: it is the natural
expression of his personality. As for thinking of himself as a patriot,
he would never dream of it. Work with the hands, close touch with the
common life of the soil, has given him much of the true wisdom of
experience. He knows us and we know him; he carries the banner, holds it
as high as he knows how, and we follow.
Whether there can be a real democracy (as in a city) where there is not
that elbow knowledge, that close neighbourhood sympathy, that conscious
surrender of little personal goods for bigger public ones, I don’t know.
Be it far from me to pretend that we are always right or that we have
arrived in our country at the perfection of self-government. I do not
wish to imply that all of our people are interested, that all attend the
caucuses and school-meetings (some of the most prominent never come
near–they stay away, and if things don’t go right they blame Charles
Baxter!) Nor must I over-emphasise the seriousness of our public
interest. But we certainly have here, if anywhere in this nation, real
self-government. Growth is a slow process. We often fail in our election
of delegates to State conventions; we sometimes vote wrong in national
affairs. It is an easy thing to think school district; difficult,
indeed, to think State or nation. But we grow. When we make mistakes,
it is not because we are evil, but because we don’t know. Once we get a
clear understanding of the right or wrong of any question you can depend
upon us–absolutely–to vote for what is right. With more education we
shall be able to think in larger and larger circles–until we become,
finally, really national in our interests and sympathies. Whenever a man
comes along who knows how simple we are, and how much we really want to
do right, if we can be convinced that a thing _is_ right–who explains
how the railroad question, for example, affects us in our intimate daily
lives, what the rights and wrongs of it are, why, we can understand and
do understand–and we are ready to act.
It is easy to rally to a flag in times of excitement. The patriotism of
drums and marching regiments is cheap; blood is material and cheap;
physical weariness and hunger are cheap. But the struggle I speak of is
not cheap. It is dramatised by few symbols. It deals with hidden
spiritual qualities within the conscience of men. Its heroes are yet
unsung and unhonoured. No combats in all the world’s history were ever
fought so high upward in the spiritual air as these; and, surely, not
And so, out of my experience both in city and country, I feel–yes, I
_know_–that the real motive power of this democracy lies back in the
little country neighbourhoods like ours where men gather in dim
schoolhouses and practice the invisible patriotism of surrender and
David Grayson (Adventures in Contentment)
Part of chapter XIII “The Politician”