“I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon's teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.”—Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842)
In a prior post, I considered the increasingly negative views of Charles Dickens on his 1842 tour of the United States. But I never got to the site of some of his most searing criticism: Washington, D.C.
The most overwhelming impression that the 30-year-old British novelist came away with from our nation’s capital was that it was “the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.” Thank God that the custom he satirized—expectorating toward (and often missing) spittoons—has not survived, nor, far more consequentially, the existence of slavery in this country.
Unfortunately, what might be thought of as the “3-D” Congress (to use his adjectives in this excerpt—despicable, dishonest, and depraved)—continues to endure, perhaps in even more virulent form than what appalled him. (The institution has, according to this Huffington Post piece, now achieved its lowest approval rating in the history of the Gallup poll. ) It stands in contrast to the buildings housing this sorry lot that Dickens rightly hailed for their beauty—not to mention the democratic ideal that continues to inspire many of us to go to the polls, no matter what our feelings about our representatives.