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The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
No Fear The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter
No Fear The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 16

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A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship—to adopt the tone of “P. P.”—was the election of General Taylor to the Presidency. It is essential, in order to form a complete estimate of the advantages of official life, to view the incumbent at the in-coming of a hostile administration. His position is then one of the most singularly irksome, and, in every contingency, disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can possibly occupy; with seldom an alternative of good, on either hand, although what presents itself to him as the worst event may very probably be the best. But it is a strange experience, to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests are within the control of individuals who neither love nor understand him, and by whom, since one or the other must needs happen, he would rather be injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one who has kept his calmness throughout the contest, to observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in the hour of triumph, and to be conscious that he is himself among its objects! There are few uglier traits of human nature than this tendency—which I now witnessed in men no worse than their neighbours—to grow cruel, merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm. If the guillotine, as applied to office-holders, were a literal fact, instead of one of the most apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief, that the active members of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to have chopped off all our heads, and have thanked Heaven for the opportunity! It appears to me—who have been a calm and curious observer, as well in victory as defeat—that this fierce and bitter spirit of malice and revenge has never distinguished the many triumphs of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs. The Democrats take the offices, as a general rule, because they need them, and because the practice of many years has made it the law of political warfare, which, unless a different system be proclaimed, it were weakness and cowardice to murmur at. But the long habit of victory has made them generous. They know how to spare, when they see occasion; and when they strike, the axe may be sharp, indeed, but its edge is seldom poisoned with ill-will; nor is it their custom ignominiously to kick the head which they have just struck off. In the third year of my Surveyorship, General Taylor was elected president. To fully understand the life of an official, one must imagine him at the moment the other party comes to power. His position is then as unpleasant as one can imagine, with no good alternatives—although what seems the worst outcome may turn out to be the best. It is a strange experience for a man of pride and feeling to know that his interests are in the control of strangers who don’t like or understand him. Under those circumstances, he would rather be injured than assisted by them. How strange for someone who has taken no part in the election to realize he is an object of the blood thirst of the victors! Few traits of human nature are uglier than the tendency to grow cruel when you have power. If the members of the victorious party had had an actual guillotine rather than a metaphorical one, I do believe they would have beheaded us and thanked God for the chance to do so. It seems to me that my party has never taken as malicious a revenge as the victorious Whigs. The Democrats take the jobs because they need them and because that’s just the way it’s done—and because to propose a change is considered a sign of weakness. But their many victories have made them generous. They know how to spare a man when there is reason to do so. When they strike, their axe is sharp, but they don’t kick the decapitated head for good measure.
In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side, rather than the triumphant one. If, heretofore, I had been none of the warmest of partisans, I began now, at this season of peril and adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and shame, that, according to a reasonable calculation of chances, I saw my own prospect of retaining office to be better than those of my Democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell! Though my situation wasn’t pleasant, I saw good reason to congratulate myself for being on the election’s losing side. Though I hadn’t taken sides in the election, I began to take sides after it. I was pretty sure where my affections lay, and I was sorry and a little embarrassed that my fellow Democratic colleagues might lose their jobs while I kept mine. But who can see even a moment into the future? My head was the first to go.
The moment when a man’s head drops off is seldom or never, I am inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life. Nevertheless, like the greater part of our misfortunes, even so serious a contingency brings its remedy and consolation with it, if the sufferer will but make the best, rather than the worst, of the accident which has befallen him. In my particular case, the consolatory topics were close at hand, and, indeed, had suggested themselves to my meditations a considerable time before it was requisite to use them. In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered. In the Custom-House, as before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years; a term long enough to rest a weary brain; long enough to break off old intellectual habits, and make room for new ones; long enough, and too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what was really of no advantage nor delight to any human being, and withholding myself from toil that would, at least, have stilled an unquiet impulse in me. Then, moreover, as regarded his unceremonious ejectment, the late Surveyor was not altogether ill-pleased to be recognized by the Whigs as an enemy; since his inactivity in political affairs,—his tendency to roam, at will, in that broad and quiet field where all mankind may meet rather than confine himself to those narrow paths where brethren of the same household must diverge from one another,—had sometimes made it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a friend. Now, after he had won the crown of martyrdom, (though with no longer a head to wear it on,) the point might be looked upon as settled. Finally, little heroic as he was, it seemed more decorous to be overthrown in the downfall of the party with which he had been content to stand, than to remain a forlorn survivor, when so many worthier men were falling; and, at last, after subsisting for four years on the mercy of a hostile administration, to be compelled then to define his position anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a friendly one. The moment when a man’s head is chopped off is almost never the happiest of his life. But like any misfortune it has some benefits, if one will only make the best of things. In my case, the consolations were already apparent. Indeed, I had thought of them long before. I had been weary of the Custom House and vaguely thinking of resigning from it, so my fate was like that of a suicidal man who has the good luck to be murdered. I had spent three years in the Custom House, long enough to rest a weary brain, to break off old habits of mind and make room for new ones. I had spent long enough—too long, really—doing a job unfit for man and keeping myself away from real work. And I was glad to be called an enemy by the Whigs, since my tendency to go my own way led many Democrats to question my loyalty. Now that I was a martyr for their cause, there was no longer any doubt. And though I didn’t imagine myself a hero, it did seem better to fall along with the party and many worthier men than to remain a lone survivor, changing sides after each election.