The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The greater part of my officers were Whigs. It was well for their venerable brotherhood, that the new Surveyor was not a politician, and, though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither received nor held his office with any reference to political services. Had it been otherwise,—had an active politician been put into this influential post, to assume the easy task of making head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld him from the personal administration of his office,—hardly a man of the old corps would have drawn the breath of official life, within a month after the exterminating angel had come up the Custom-House steps. According to the received code in such matters, it would have been nothing short of duty, in a politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the axe of the guillotine. It was plain enough to discern, that the old fellows dreaded some such discourtesy at my hands. It pained, and at the same time amused me, to behold the terrors that attended my advent; to see a furrowed cheek, weather-beaten by half a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or another addressed me, the tremor of a voice, which, in long-past days, had been wont to bellow through a speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas himself to silence. They knew, these excellent old persons, that, by all established rule,—and, as regarded some of them, weighed by their own lack of efficiency for business,—they ought to have given place to younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves to serve our common Uncle. I knew it too, but could never quite find in my heart to act upon the knowledge. Much and deservedly to my own discredit, therefore, and considerably to the detriment of my official conscience, they continued, during my incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter up and down the Custom-House steps. They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall; awaking, however, once or twice in a forenoon, to bore one another with the several thousandth repetition of old sea-stories, and mouldy jokes, that had grown to be pass-words and countersigns among them. Most of my officers were

Whigs

One of two major political parties in the mid-19th century. The Democrats were the other major party.

Whigs
. It was lucky for them that I was no politician. Though a faithful Democrat in principle, my appointment to the job wasn’t political. If I had been a partisan Democrat, placed in this job to do the easy task of seizing power from an elderly Whig customs-collector whose illness kept him from fulfilling his duties, I would have fired almost every officer in my first month on the job. I would have been the Angel of Death himself. Indeed, the unspoken rules of politics would have made it my duty to give those white-haired guys the axe. It was easy to see the old fellows were nervous around me. I found it both funny and painful to see the terror with which they greeted my arrival. Old men, weather beaten by fifty years at sea, would turn pale when I glanced at them. Little harmless me! When they spoke to me, their voices trembled—the same voices that used to bellow commands. They knew, the clever old men, that by the established political rules (and, in some cases, by their own inability to work) they should have been replaced by younger, healthier men who voted Democratic. I knew it, too, but I could never bring myself to do anything about it. To my well-deserved shame, and with a guilty official conscience, I let the old men hang out on the wharves and loiter on the Custom House steps. They spent a lot of time asleep in their usual corners, chairs tilted back against the walls. They’d wake up once or twice every morning to bore each other with the several thousandth repetition of old sea stories and moldy jokes, which had turned into passwords for them.
The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor had no great harm in him. So with lightsome hearts, and the happy consciousness of being usefully employed,—in their own behalf, at least, if not for our beloved country,—these good old gentlemen went through the various formalities of office. Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds of vessels! Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers! Whenever such a mischance occurred,—when a wagon-load of valuable merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath their unsuspicious noses,—nothing could exceed the vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel. Instead of a reprimand for their previous negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on their praiseworthy caution, after the mischief had happened; a grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal, the moment that there was no longer any remedy! They must have quickly realized I was harmless. So with light hearts and the happy knowledge that they were usefully employed (the jobs were useful to them, even if they weren’t much use to the country) these good old men went through the motions. Looking wisely under their spectacles, they peeped into the holds of mighty ships. They made a big fuss about little things and showed an amazing ability to let serious matters slip through their fingers. Whenever something bad happened—for example, when an entire wagonload of valuable goods was smuggled ashore at noon, right underneath their unsuspicious noses—nothing could outdo their fast and useless reaction. They’d lock and double-lock and tape up and wax over every opening of the ship. Instead of scolding them for their negligence, it seemed I was supposed to praise them for springing into action the moment there was nothing left to do.
Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my foolish habit to contract a kindness for them. The better part of my companion’s character, if it have a better part, is that which usually comes uppermost in my regard, and forms the type whereby I recognize the man. As most of these old Custom-House officers had good traits, and as my position in reference to them, being paternal and protective, was favorable to the growth of friendly sentiments, I soon grew to like them all. It was pleasant, in the summer forenoons,—when the fervent heat, that almost liquefied the rest of the human family, merely communicated a genial warmth to their half-torpid systems,—it was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while the frozen witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came bubbling with laughter from their lips. Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common with the mirth of children; the intellect, any more than a deep sense of humor, has little to do with the matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon the surface, and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the green branch, and gray, mouldering trunk. In one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying wood. It’s a foolish habit of mine to be nice to anyone who isn’t extremely irritating. If a man has strong points, I focus on those. Since most of these old Custom House officials had good traits, and since my paternal, protective position created a friendly environment, I grew to like them all. On summer mornings, when heat that would liquefy younger people only warmed these old ones, it was nice to hear them all chatting in the back entry, chairs tipped against the wall, as usual. They would thaw out and tell the frozen old jokes of past generations. On the outside, the jolliness of old men is like the happiness of children. There is nothing deep or intellectual about it. Both the elderly and the young light up with laughter on their surface, whether that surface is a green branch or a gray, moldy trunk. But for the young that light is real sunshine; for the aged, it’s the glow of decaying wood.