Rhode Island: A State For Sale

by Lincoln Steffens

The most infamous article ever written about Rhode Island is almost certainly the article by the legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens, which ran in the February 1905 edition of McClure’s Magazine. Steffens found the Ocean State rotten with corruption from Providence and Pawtucket to Bristol and Block Island, with individual citizens selling their votes and U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, political boss Charles R. Brayton and their cronies manipulating the General Assembly to pad their pockets. He found that corruption at the national level started at the state and local level, using Rhode Island as the modern example. More than a century later, Steffens’ outraged prose remains powerful and entertaining.

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.”

This is all wrong. The evils of Rhode Island concern every man, woman, and child in our land. For example: The United States Senate is coming more and more to be the actual head of the United States Government. In the Senate there is a small ring (called the Steering Committee), which is coming more and more to be the head of the United States Senate. The head of this committee is Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, who has been described as “the boss of the United States,” “the power behind the power behind the throne,” and “the general manager of the United States.” The fitness of these titles is questioned, but it is a question of national politics, and all I know to the point in that field is what everybody knows: that Senator Aldrich, a very rich man and father-in-law of young Mr. [John D.] Rockefeller, is supposed to represent “Sugar,” “Standard Oil,” “New York,” and, more broadly, “Wall Street”; our leading legislative authority on protective tariff, he speaks for privileged business; the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he stands for high finance. These facts and suppositions, taken together with the praises I have heard of him in Wall Street and the comfortable faith he seems to inspire in business men all over the country, suggest that we have in Senator Aldrich the commercial ideal of political character, and — if not the head — at least the political representative of the head of that System which is coming more and more to take the place of the passing paper government of the United States.

What sort of a man is Senator Aldrich? What school of politics did he attend, what school of business? What kind of a government is it that forms the traditions and perhaps the ideal of the most powerful man in our national legislature? What kind of a government does he give his own people in his own State? In brief, what is the System that he has produced and that has produced him? These are questions of national interest, and Rhode Island can answer them. Mr. Aldrich is the senior Senator for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. 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.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are building up is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

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 —the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. 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. Poor in soil, it is rich in waterways, and the Rhode Islanders, turning early from agriculture to manufacture, made goods which they sent forth from their magnificent harbor to all the world in ships that brought home cargoes of wealth. One of the New England group of colonies, Rhode Island was founded as a refuge from the Puritan intolerance of Massachusetts. 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.

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