Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
The Dying Boss

By Lincoln Steffens

(American writer upon social problems, 1866–1936. A story of the political leader of a corrupt city, who lies upon his death-bed, and has asked to have the meaning of his own career made plain to him)
“WHAT kind of a kid were you, Boss?” I began.  1
  “Pretty tough, I guess,” he answered.  2
  “Born here?”  3
  “Yes; in the Third Ward.”  4
  “Tough then as it is now?”  5
  “Tougher,” he said.  6
  “Produces toughness the way Kansas produces corn,” I remarked. “Father?” I asked.  7
  “Kept a saloon; a driver before that.”  8
  “Mother a girl of the ward?”  9
  “Yes,” he said. “She was brought up there; but she came to this country with her father from England, as a baby.”  10
  “What sort of woman was she?”  11
  “Quiet,” he said; “always still; silent-like; a worker. Kept the old man straight—some; and me too—’s well as she could. She’s th’ one that got him off th’ wagon and started in th’ liquor business.”  12
  “You were poor people?”  13
  “Yes.”  14
  “And common?”  15
  “Y-yes-s.”  16
  “A child of the people,” I commented; “the common people.”  17
  He nodded, wondering.  18
  “One of the great, friendless mass of helpless humanity?”  19
  He nodded.  20
  “That wasn’t your fault, was it?” I said. “Not to blame for that? That’s not your sin, is it?”  21
  He shook his head, staring, and he was so mystified that I said that most people were “pretty terribly punished for being born poor and common.” He nodded, but he wasn’t interested or enlightened, apparently. “And you learned, somehow, that the thing to do was to get yourself on, get up out of it, make a success of your life?”  22
  “Yes,” he said slowly. “I don’t know how, but I did get that, somehow.”  23
  “That was the ideal they taught you,” I said. “Never heard of getting everybody on and making a success of society; of the city and State?”  24
  But this line of questioning was beyond him. I changed my tack.…  25
  “In that first interview we had,” I said, “you insisted that, while the business boss was the real boss, the sovereign, you had some power of your own. And you described it today as the backing of your own ward, which, you said, you had in your pocket. When you became boss, you got the backing, the personal support, of other wards, didn’t you?”  26
  “Seven of ’em,” he counted. “Made th’ leaders myself.”  27
  “And you developed a big personal following in other wards, too?”  28
  “Sure,” he said; “in every one of them. I was a popular leader; not only a boss, but a friend with friends, lots of ’em. The people liked me.”  29
  “That’s the point,” I said. “The people liked you.”  30
  He nodded warmly.  31
  “The common people,” I went on, and he was about to nod, but he didn’t. And his fingers became still. “Your own people—the great helpless mass of the friendless mob—liked you.” His eyes were fixed on mine. “They followed you; they trusted you.”  32
  I paused a moment, then I asked: “Didn’t they, Boss?”  33
  “Yes,” he said with his lips alone.  34
  “They didn’t set a watch on you, did they?” I continued. “They voted as you bade them vote, elected the fellows you put on the tickets of their party for them. And, after they elected them, they left it to them, and to you, to be true to them; to stick to them; to be loyal.”  35
  His eyes fell to his fingers, and his fingers began again to pick.  36
  “And when your enemies got after you and accused you,” I said, “the people stuck by you?”  37
  No answer; only the fingers picked.  38
  “The great, friendless mass—the hopeful, hopeless majority—they were true to you and the party, and they re-elected you.”  39
  His eyes were on mine again, and there was light in them; but it was the reflected light of fire, and it burned.  40
  “And you—you betrayed them,” I said; and I hurried on, piling on the fuel, all I had. “They have power, the people have, and they have needs, great common needs; and they have great common wealth. All your fat, rich franchises, all your great social values, the values added to land and franchise by the presence of the great, common, numerous mass, all the city’s public property—all are theirs, their common property. They own enough in common to meet all their great common needs, and they have an organization to keep for them and to develop for their use and profit all these great needed social values. It is the city; the city government; city, State, and national. And they have, they breed in their own ranks, men like you, natural political leaders, to go into public life and lead them, teach them, represent them. And they leave it all to you, trusting you. And you, all of you—not you alone, Boss, but all of you: ward leaders; State leaders; all the national political bosses—you all betray them. You receive from them their votes, so faithfully given, and you transform them into office-holders whom you teach or corrupt and compel to obey you. So you reorganize the city government. You, not the Mayor, are the head of it; you, not the council, are its legislature; you, not the heads of departments, are the administrators of the property and the powers of the people of your city; the common, helpless, friendless people. And, having thus organized and taken over all this power and property and—this beautiful faith, you do not protect their rights and their property. What do you do with it, Boss?”  41
  He started. He could not answer. I answered for him:  42
  “You sell ’em out; you turn over the whole thing—the city, its property, and its people—to Business, to the big fellows; to the business leaders of the people. You deliver, not only franchises, privileges, private rights and public properties, and values, Boss: you—all of you together—have delivered the government itself to these men, so that today this city, this State, and the national government represent, normally, not the people, not the great mass of common folk, who need protection, but—Business; preferably bad business; privileged business; a class; a privileged class.”  43
  He had sunk back among the pillows, his eyes closed, his fingers still. I sounded him.  44
  “That’s the system,” I repeated. “It’s an organization of social treason, and the political boss is the chief traitor. It couldn’t stand without the submission of the people; the real bosses have to get that. They can’t buy the people—too many of them; so they buy the people’s leaders, and the disloyalty of the political boss is the key to the whole thing.”  45
  These was no response. I plumbed him again.  46
  “And you—you believe in loyalty, Boss,” I said—“in being true to your own.” His eyes opened. “That’s your virtue, you say, and you said, too, that you have practiced it.”  47
  “Don’t,” he murmured.  48

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