Ed Driscoll

The Bad Old Days

At Commentary, John Steele Gordon writes:

Many people (and more than a few journalists) live in a continual present. The current recession or riot or oil spill or whatever is judged in a vacuum. So one of the most important functions of history is to give you a sense of perspective.

With Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel in very hot water, with an assortment of their former fellow members of Congress currently or recently in jail, it’s easy to think of the current era as peculiarly corrupt. An amusing article in today’s New York Times shows that it is not. Indeed, it’s not even close. When William Hale Thompson, mayor of Chicago during much of the Prohibition era, died in 1944, his safe-deposit boxes were found to contain no less than $1.5 million in cash (worth at least ten times that in today’s dollars). Convicted former Congressman William Jefferson’s $90,000 worth of cash in the freezer is chump change by comparison.

But even the Prohibition era pales by comparison with New York in the late 1860’s. All branches of government in both the city and the state were corrupt. An English magazine wrote in 1868 that “in New York there is a custom among litigants, as peculiar to that city, it is to be hoped, as it is supreme within it, of retaining a judge as well as a lawyer.” The great New York diarist (and lawyer) George Templeton Strong, wrote in his diary in 1870, “The Supreme Court [in New York state, the trial court, not the court of last appeal] is our Cloaca Maxima, with lawyers for its rats. But my simile does that rodent an injustice, for the rat is a remarkably clean animal.”

Heh. As far as those who “live in a continual present,” as Gordon puts it, check out Mark Steyn’s thoughts from a few years ago on “present-tense culture.”