Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brooklyn Memories: A Glance backwards, 60 years Ago (4))

(Continue from Page: 3)

The inhabitants of these hamlets locally governed themselves in the following fashion: "On the first Tuesday in April, every year the free-holders assemble together and hold a town meeting, and elect one Supervisor, one Town Clerk, no less than three nor more than seven Assessors, one or more Collectors, two overseers of the Poor, and three Commissioners of Highways, each of whom must be a freeholder and an inhabitant of the Town, and so many Constables, Overseers of the Highways, Fence Viewers and Pound Masters, as the inhabitants (freeholders) shall deem necessary, which officers hold their office for one year; or until others are chosen in their place. Every Supervisor, Town Clerk, &c., shall take the oath prescribed by law. Any person refusing to serve in either of these capacities, forfeits the sum of twenty-five pounds, ($125). Any Overseer of Highways, Fence Viewers or Pound Master, who shall refuse, forfeits five pounds, ($25.)

What a difference of public sentiment between these times and ours! Office so far from being sought for was avoided, and the law, not deeming the sense of public duty of the citizen strong enough to compel him to sacrifice his own interest for the interest of the community, came in to compel him by a fine to do so, as it does now by the same means to perform the irksome duty of a grand or petit-juror!

Did our historian building up in his imagination his fair city of Olympia, ever dream of a class of placemen who live for office and by office? did these honest freeholders, dodging the honor of office, every think of being succeeded by those who hunger after it more than the Israelites did after the Egyptian fleshpots; who are willing to spend seven times the nominal salary of an office and run the risk of reimbursing themselves by public plunder? Could they imagine anything like the modern political wire-puller__half bully, half knave, from whose contact a quiet and honest man naturally shrinks, voluntarily resigning the most precious trusts of citizenship, rather than exercise it in such company? Corruption in public office is today more surely sapping the foundation of our institutions than all things else together. The Union and Constitution may tremble beneath the violence of antagonistic opinion, but the sober second thought of the people will restore harmony and peace. The slavery question may be compromised; nature herself prohibits its unlimited extension, and may provide for its abolition. But political corruption grows by what it feeds on, and if not checked in time, will end only when there is no country to rob, or when the strong arm of military despotism follows it in natural sequence, and ends it, and with it puts an end to political liberty.

This, however, is rather foreign to the subject of this article. In 1800 Brooklyn Township was in this respect like the whole country; twenty years earlier Franklin wrote:

"Of civil offices or employments there are few; no superfluous ones, as in open; and it is a rule established in some of the states that no office should be so profitable as to make it desirable. The 36th article of the Constitution of Pennsylvania runs expressly in these words: 'As every freeman, to preserve his independence (if he has not sufficient estate) ought to have some profession, calling, trade or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in establishing, offices of profit, the usual effects of which are dependence and servility, unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, contention, corruption and disorder among the people. Wherefore, whenever an office, through increase of flies or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it the profits ought to be lessened by the Legislature."

The frugal Nassau islanders doubtless had all these things fixed economically enough. Thirty years after, when Brooklyn had 15,000 inhabitants we believe the salary of the President of the Board of Trustees was a little over $8 a week; the Street Commissioners had a little over $3 and the clerk not quite as much.

To be continued: A Glance Backwards, Sixty Years Ago (5)

Source of Information: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5/7/1860

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