The Gilded Age on congressional investigations


How little things change. In The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, a member of the Senate, Abner Dilworthy, is caught bribing a state legislator to ensure his reelection. Dilworthy knows how to respond:

Yes, the nation was excited, but Senator Dilworthy was calm–what was left of him after the explosion of the shell. Calm, and up and doing. What did he do first? What would you do first, after you had tomahawked your mother at the breakfast table for putting too much sugar in your coffee? You would “ask for a suspension of public opinion.” That is what Senator Dilworthy did. It is the custom. He got the usual amount of suspension. Far and wide he was called a thief, a briber, a promoter of steamship subsidies, railway swindles, robberies of the government in all possible forms and fashions. Newspapers and everybody else called him a pious hypocrite, a sleek, oily fraud, a reptile who manipulated temperance movements, prayer meetings, Sunday schools, public charities, missionary enterprises, all for his private benefit. And as these charges were backed up by what seemed to be good and sufficient, evidence, they were believed with national unanimity.

Then Mr. Dilworthy made another move. He moved instantly to Washington and “demanded an investigation.” Even this could not pass without, comment. Many papers used language to this effect:

“Senator Dilworthy’s remains have demanded an investigation. This sounds fine and bold and innocent; but when we reflect that they demand it at the hands of the Senate of the United States, it simply becomes matter for derision. One might as well set the gentlemen detained in the public prisons to trying each other. This investigation is likely to be like all other Senatorial investigations–amusing but not useful. Query. Why does the Senate still stick to this pompous word, ‘Investigation?’ One does not blindfold one’s self in order to investigate an object.”

Newspapers no longer write with such verve–some things do change, and not always for the better.