Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward.

No. 418.]

Sir: M. Frère urban, the minister of finance, in a speech upon electoral reform, the day before yesterday, in the house of representatives, made such incorrect statements and mistaken conclusions, based upon newspaper correspondence, and Messrs. de Tocqueville’s and Macaulay’s theories respecting the condition and results of extended electoral rights in the United States, that I felt impelled not to accept his assumptions by silence, and, accordingly, wrote him a letter in reply, which I have the honor to enclose herewith, together with his speech as reported in the Moniteur.

It is curious to observe how the leaders of the “liberal’ party here, which, after the revolution that separated Belgium from Holland, sought to model their constitution upon ours, appear now to fear the influence of our system here. I had occasion to notice, in discussions in the house during the rebellion, the eager haste with which the supposed failure of self-government was accepted and commented on by some of them. Self preservation may have, as well as [Page 628] patriotism, its show in this feeling; for any considerable extension of the electoral franchise would, especially if greater facilities for voting were given those living outside of the large towns, he likely to cost the party its hold on power. The number of electors for the Belgian chambers is 107,000, which is in much less ratio to the population than in England, (1 in 46 in the former, 1 in 20, I believe, in the latter.) The proprietorship of the principal railroads and canals, the telegraph, &c, by the State, gives to the government an unusual amount of patronage, and there are about 32,000 functionaries and employés, not counting soldiers, dependent upon it, or equal to near one-third the number of electors.

The influence upon the elections, which can be exerted in this channel by those in power, it can readily be imagined would be less potent in proportion as the number was increased. Still this tendency is very decidedly to an enlarged basis for the electoral franchise.

The discussions in the house which relate to the extension of suffrage in the communal and provincial elections show that there are considerable men of both parties who are disposed to join in this universal movement for reform which is destined to give to the people of most European States a larger place in their governments.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, your most obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.

March 29.

P, S.—On the point of mailing my despatch, I received the reply of M. Frêre-Orban to my letter, which I have barely time to send you in translation, and which I annex hereto. The speech of the minister, enclosed, will show how far its tendency was to “mislead public opinion,” and to what extent he assumed and applied as truth the newspaper statements and theories referred to.

It is satisfactory to receive his disclaimer. I add my reply.

H. S. S.

Mr. Sanford to Mr. Orban.

Mon Cher Ministre: I have read in the Annales Parlementaires the report of your speech of which I heard a part yesterday in the discussion upon the electoral law in the house of representatives, and you must permit me to take exception to the application by you to the United States of abuses with respect to elections, which, on the authority of a writer in a foreign newspaper, you ascribe to the city of New York. To judge fairly and justly of our electoral system and its results, an example taken from its workings in a State or section of the country would have given a more correct idea than that of a city, whose dense population is, in great part, foreign, and whose administration is so notoriously bad that the people of the State, through their legislature, are seeking to reform it. Why not take the State of New York instead of the city as a test of the electoral corruptions, which you assert are practiced on so large a scale in the United States, or any other State or group of States ?

The result of such research would, I affirm, demonstrate that outside of great cities the elections are conducted with a purity difficult to parallel in any country of restricted suffrage. The candidate base enough to offer to bribe the electors, is deterred by their numbers as well as by the publicity which accompanies his acts, and the public odium which would attach to him. So far from the stories which you have repeated from the correspondent of the London Times about the corruptions of elections being of truthful application to the whole country, or costing the sums you name, I venture to assert that nine out of ten of the members of the present Congress need, on account of their moderate fortunes, for their support, the meagre pay which is attached to their office. I go further, and I give you my opinion, which is quite as good authority as the assertions of the anonymous correspondent of a journal notoriously hostile to the United States, that not one in ten, if any, of the members from the rural districts has given a dollar in aid of his election, save as subscription to the electoral committee [Page 629] of his district, or for the distribution of documents, &c, for the enlightenment of the electors upon the questions at issue. Money is given, to be sure, in aid of the elections, but more by private citizens than candidates for office; but it is given to their party organizations who provide orators, suitable places of meeting for the discussions of the candidates, and distribute documents which shall serve to inform the people upon the political questions which enter into the canvass. When you instance the election in the city of New York of Mr. Morrissey, who was once a boxer, and the alleged enormous cost of his election, and draw from that your conclusions, you might with as much and more justice, recalling the fact that a notorious prize fighter was for years a member of the British House of Commons, and the details of the late inquests upon the electoral corruptions at Totsnes and Yarmouth, instance those as the general results of restricted suffrage in Great Britain.

When foreign writers, attached to old and fading systems, seek to find faults, distort facts and predict or announce the failure of that system whose progress alarms them, and whose inevitable triumph in the world they seek to avert, I comprehend their fears, and do not wonder at their vain efforts, but I do not comprehend that those who seek to lead in Belgium should follow in their footsteps, and mislead public opinion with regard to the results of self-government in the United States. Why not look at results and draw your conclusions from them? These results were shown strikingly during the late war upon the slaveholders’ rebellion. To this participation of the great mass of the people in public affairs, association I may call it with the government, which is created by it, and which excites such general and lively interest in the public weal, may be ascribed in no small degree that magnificent uprising of the nation in arms to support its government. We had less than 9,000 men in our army, and but 800 soldiers on the Atlantic coast when the war commenced. When it ended there were 1,060,000 veterans in arms, and twice that number of loyal citizens had in the course of the war volunteered their services.

I need not call to you how triumphantly the government elected by this people, whose corruption, you so boldly assert, resisted a strain upon it under which any other would probably have succumbed. If electoral corruption were so prevalent it is to be supposed the enemy would have taken advantage of it to paralyze the government through the elections to Congress. You saw 10 per cent, of the population volunteering in its armies; you saw how they clamored for taxes to enable the government to carry on the war, and instructed their representatives to vote for them; and you saw how, the war over, that vast host resolved again into a peaceful army of workingmen, and how vigorously the people’s representatives set themselves to the work of paying off the debt created during the war, (about 1,200,000,000 francs being extinguished the year after;) and with these great facts before you, you seek in an exaggerated story in the “Times” about elections in New York, for your conclusions to the house of representatives of Belgium as to the results of extended suffrage in the United States ! Where you may have found in a local disturbance proofs of corruption and decay in the body politic, another statesman might with more justice draw the conclusion that it was owing to exuberant health! And when you quote seriously the standing joke of a well-known wit of New York, “Vote early, and vote often,” I agree with you that the example of the United States is “bien mal appris, bien mal apprecie” by some people.

If we are, as you affirm, on the “pente de la démocratie,” may it not rather be ascribed to the success which has attended our system of suffrage than to its failure? The jealousy of the masses which distinguished our early legislation touching suffrage has given way before the experience of these 80 years, and its limits have been steadily enlarged. I admit that there may be danger in carrying it to excess, but I insist that it proves that the result of extended suffrage in the United States has been to impress the public mind and our legislators with the fact that the people may be trusted. With your opinion that the people of Belgium are not so to be trusted I have nothing to do; but I insist that, in order to win others over to that opinion, the condition of the people and institutions of my country ought not to be misrepresented, as they were, I am happy to believe, unintentionally in your speech of yesterday.

Accept, my dear minister, the assurance of my most distinguished consideration,


His Excellency M. Frêre Orban, Minister of Finance,

Mr. Orban to Mr. Sanford.

My Dear Minister: I received, the day before yesterday, the letter which you did me the honor to write to me, under date of the 24th instant, touching opinions which I expressed in the discussion in the house of representatives relative to electoral reform.

You suppose that from the facts of electoral corruption in New York, I concluded that corruption of this kind was general in the United States; and you are pleased to say that, “outside of the great cities the elections are conducted with a purity difficult to parallel in any [Page 630] country of restricted suffrage.” There is evidently here a misunderstanding” on your part, my dear minister. I did not, from particular and local facts, draw the conclusion that the identical situation was the same everywhere. I did not even go so far as you, in stating that analogous facts to what passed at New York would be found in “other great cities.” I limited myself to recalling facts which are not disputed, in order to reply to an assertion frequently repeated here, that in lowering, and, with greater reason, in suppressing the rate, electoral corruption would disappear. One’s reason says that it cannot be so; the experience of all people and of all countries proves it. Canvassing illegitimate pressure, means of corruption are inherent not to such or such electoral system, but to all. Restricted suffrage is not more exempt from them than universal suffrage, but the latter is not more immaculate than the others, and too often it causes abuses to increase in ratio to the number of those who are called upon to exercise it.

In Belgium, a country of restricted suffrage, corruption is reduced to such feeble proportions that there is yet no law to express it. Lately complaints have been made of the expenses which candidates incur in giving dinners to the electors, under [plea] that these dinners engender corruption. The house wished to proscribe these expenses; the senate did not concur.

Stating such facts in America, as in England, or even in Belgium, is neither speaking ill of their institutions nor giving a false idea of them. On the other hand, declaring as I did that the regime in vigor in the United States has been too short a time in action, and in conditions too exceptional to permit a definitive judgment respecting it; in recognizing, moreover, how much it had produced that was great and glorious, I do not think to have authorized it to be said with reason “that public opinion is misled with regard to the results of self government in the United States.”

With regard to my appreciation as to the consequences which I believe inevitable of every system which leads to pure democracy, you will permit me to preserve my convictions. I believe them to be shared by very distinguished men of the United States. There are many who dread—you know it better than I—the results already very apparent in the great cities of a very extended suffrage, and you admit yourself that “there may be danger in pushing this system to excess.” But whatever the opinion in this respect formed touching the destiny of that great republic, there is no one who does not recognize the marvels which have been brought forth by the genius of the American people.

Accept, my dear minister, the assurance of my most distinguished consideration.


H. S. Sanford, Esq., &c., &c., &c.

Mr. Sanford to Mr. Orban.

My Dear Minister: I have to thank you for your letter of yesterday; and I am gratified to learn that I was mistaken in my impression respecting your speech on the 23d instant.

I think, however, that when you assert that “electoral corruption is practiced on the vastest scale in the United States,” and when you assume as truth and quote the scandalous stories respecting the elections in the city of New York, and apart from the deductions which you draw from them as to the effects of general suffrage, you distinctly indicate the exceptional condition of things in that city according to foreign newspaper correspondents, as “the results in an administrative point of view which universal suffrage gives already at this moment in the United States,” it might be fairly assumed, I think, that public opinion was being “misled” as to what was the tendency and results of extended suffrage in the United States, as well as the moral condition of its people in consequence.

I am glad to be corrected in the impression I had formed of the character of your speech, and to be assured that you do not take the frightful condition of things in New York, as depicted in the newspaper stories referred to, as a type of the results of extended suffrage with us, and I venture to express the hope that you will publicly say so.

I have to ask you to excuse me for encroaching upon your valuable time with this correspondence, but I was anxious to correct a wrong impression, if it existed in your mind, and to set myself right with respect to the impression which your speech had made upon me if I was in the wrong.

I have again to thank you for your courteous response.

I pray you to believe me, my dear minister, with sentiments of great esteem, your obedient servant,


His Excellency M. Frêre Orban, &c., &c., &c.