In mĭnĭmis cauti, in maxĭmis negligentes

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last week, I suggested that the Texas legislature adopt a motto that truly reflected its wisdom, or lack thereof. My first suggestion was “In mĭnĭmis cauti, in maxĭmis negligentes,” Latin for “Cautious in small matters, careless in great.” Or in the parlance of our times, “penny-wise, pound foolish.”

Alternatively, if our state’s elected “corpus dementia” had a salt lick of sense, it might choose: “Vir prudens non contra ventum mingit,” Latin for “A wise man does not urinate against the wind.” But that entails assuming that our collective corpus know how to lower a zipper in the same way they lower our expectations for a better Texas every two years. But that is what “Depends” and staff are for.

But enough ridicule, however well deserved.

The purpose of this post is to continue the penny-wise, pound foolish history of the legislature started with the post, “If at First You Don’t Secede, Try, Try Again.”
For that, we step back to 1881, and the burning of the Old Colonial Capitol that preceded our present asylum. As you will read, the event was a masterpiece of multiple incompetence.

On November 9, 1881, while Governor Oran Roberts, Comptroller Brown, Treasurer Lubbock, Land Commissioner Walsh, Attorney General McLeary, and the new capitol commissioners, Judge Jo Lee and Col. L.N. Norton were consulting over the plans for the proposed new capitol, the old one was being set on fire a few feet from them through the carelessness of a department clerk, and the ignorance of a mechanic who ran a stove pipe against the paper and plank sides of a room full of books, instead of into a flue, as he supposed he was doing.

A hole had formerly been cut in the stone wall between the two rooms for a stove pipe to be extended from the attorney general’s east room to the further or east wall of the book room, in which there was a flue. Latterly, this aperture on the book-room side had been papered or planked over, but was open on the side of the attorney general’s office. A few days ago a stove was put up in the eastern room of the attorney general’s office, and the stove pipe from it was placed in that aperture. The sparks when the fire in the stove was lighted, of course made their way through the paper or plank over the stove hole in the book room and dropped down among the books and caused the fire. That room contained the entire reserve supply of all the Texas Supreme Court Reports, from the organization of that tribunal up to and inclusive of volume 53, received from the publishers but a few months ago. The journals of the congress of the republic and all the legislatures since annexation were also deposited there, and the same may be said of several hundred volumes of the Revised Civil Statutes of the State.

The fire had got well under way among the valuable and inflammable material before it was discovered, and had made such headway before any general alarm could be given that it was impossible to save the building with the inadequate water supply in the Capitol grounds, and the little pressure on the water pipes at that time. But the portraits of old heroes and old Texans in the Representative Hall and the Senate Chamber, and many valuable works from the State Library, could have been saved if the heads of the State Government had shown presence of mind at the first discovery of the fire. But the State Library, geological specimens, the portraits, paintings, furniture, and everything in the legislative halls is a total loss, and the only things saved from the building were the records of the various departments, and some of them in a damaged condition. The loss of the building itself can not be considered a very great calamity, but some of its contents were invaluable, and can never be replaced.

The flames consuming the State Capitol reduced to ashes mementoes dear to Texas history. Beside the six volumes of historical records of the early days of Mexico, many portraits of the fathers of the Republic, and of celebrities of a later date, which can not be replaced, were destroyed.

The 16th and 17th Legislatures had failed to approve funding for hydrants; there was insufficient water or water pressure to mount an effective attack on the fire. An entry in fire records by department recorder A.H. Robinson, noted the pressure, however, was not sufficient to throw water even a few feet. “The economical solons (sessions) of the sixteenth legislature and so, too, the seventeenth, refused to appropriate enough money to supply the Capitol building and the grounds with hydrants and water. Today, we gaze upon the blackened walls of a burnt state house as the monument to their penny-wise and pound-foolish policy.”

Fingers were pointing at each other everywhere after the fire, as several articles in the Galveston Daily News pointed out, beginning on November 15, 1881:

“THE NEWS, in this issue, in the special letter of its Austin correspondent, publishes a reply to the State Commissioner of Insurance to some comments upon the conspicuous business defects of politicians elevated to high trusts as illustrated by the recent burning of uninsured public property at the capital. The comments referred to in THE NEWS issue of the 13th are met by Colonel Spaight, who appears to shoulder the entire responsibility of the failure of any official to procure the protection of a policy of insurance upon the old capital. Although he claims the duty to insure is not nominated in the law as applicable to his bureau, yet he proceeds to contention and debate against any one dreaming of so unusual and preposterous an idea as to insure a State capitol. It is then quite in order to hold the volunteer champion of the neglectful State administration responsible and solely responsible for the omission, if there has been one, which involves any dereliction of duty or palpable lack of ordinary business capacity. The commissioner attempts to avoid responsibility because the duty of insuring public property is not specifically set out in the act creating his office. He is by law superintendent of public buildings and grounds. He has as such exercised the specific act of guarding the capitol against fire by having the flues cleansed. Was that specific duty set forth in the act, and was a specific appropriation made for the professional chimney sweep he employed? In the correspondent’s letter referred to is mentioned the fact that the commissioner recognized great danger of fire and took precautions against it.

“The commissioner holds that no appropriation for insurance has been made in forty years; neither, might he add, has any been made f or an expert chimney-sweep’s salary. And yet THE NEWS only inquired why the commissioner had not asked the governor and legislature to provide insurance against a fire loss.

“Certainly, though not specified as one of his duties, there was nothing in the constitution or in the penal statutes to prevent a modest recommendation of the kind. As to the second chapter of the reply, that the law prohibits the appointment of a “special insurance official” to command the bureau, the country has a very startling and expensive reminder of the fact that the law has been very rigorously obeyed in that particular injunction. Another branch of the subject presents a more serious matter for consideration, and that is with reference to the water facilities in the capitol grounds. Colonel Spaight is ex-officio superintendent of the grounds, but is careful in his reply to state nothing upon his own authority upon that subject. The superintendent of the Austin waterworks is his witness, whose ex parte statements to himself he would have the public to believe are conclusive that the plugs and hydrants upon the grounds were sufficient in case of fire. Colonel Spaight has more immediate control of the grounds than the waterworks official, and ought to speak from his own, knowledge. Again, the waterworks company has had a contract for supplying the grounds and buildings with water, and its official is an interested witness. Further, the chief of the Austin fire department, upon his oath, stated he could find but one hydrant there, and it was not good, and that if others were there they must have been covered with wood. Fourthly, it may be pertinently asked if the superintendent of the grounds is not responsible that this one accessible hydrant was not in good working order, and the one hid out was not accessible at the time of the fire? Perhaps the act creating the bureau failed to specify this responsibility.

“Evidences daily accumulate going to show the incapacity of the law-makers. It appears that even the governor discovered the absolute failure of the water supply from the hydrant on the grounds, while from the hydrants to the south of and outside the grounds an ample supply was obtained, but the smoke on that side of the building and the great distance the hose were stretched prevented the firemen from using it to advantage. This branch of the subject, in view of the serious responsibilities that may be brought to light, it is believed the commissioner and ex-officio superintendent of the grounds had done well to avoid, and not have challenged the damaging inferences to be drawn from the condition in which the fire companies found his facilities for protecting the uninsured property committed to his supervision. The next witness for the defence is Governor Coke, who declined to insure because the State was able to insure its own property—that is to say, the State was able to stand the loss, or the State government was in the insurance business and could afford to take the risk, neither inference being true. The State government was then and is yet in debt, and its business is as specifically stated in its charter of authority granted by the people as are the duties of the commissioner in the act creating his bureau, and his insurance bureau is the only business relating to insurance mentioned in that charter. Men have instituted waterworks, fire engines, fire-proof buildings, and it may be said also, chimney-sweeps, to protect public and private property from fire and fire losses, but they have found the best protection is an insurance policy. For public buildings every other protection against loss is to be required, except the lost named, and why? Because in thirty years the cost of insurance would be more than the value of the insured property, as stated by Colonel Spaight. That is true of perhaps five hundred millions of insured values in this country, which for that length of time have been kept insured. Observing this controversy, the insurers will now no doubt permit their policies to lapse. Yet the State has and will continue to pay for insurance in the way of water rates, chimney-sweeps, per diem, and the salary of the superintendent of the public buildings. Only recently have these protections been thrown about the capitol—with what good result is known—yet if the estimate of the cost of insurance thirty years back is to be paraded as a saving, the State for thirty years, or nearly that length of time, has also saved the cost of the bureau, the sweep and the defective hydrant, which by the same calculation would have cost the State upward of $247,300 – quite enough to justify the conclusion that they have been instituted all too soon unless at the same time the insurance policy had also been obtained. It is scarcely necessary to refer to the frivolous matters and deductions submitted by the commissioner having no force or bearing upon the propositions he has had the temerity to champion. He would infer that the State having during forty years dispensed with insurance, it is thereby shown to be undesirable. The State-for thirty-five years dispensed with the insurance bureau and other States have managed to exist more than forty years without any such luxury. Let the same inference follow. Another inference, equally absurd, is that because the superintendent of the waterworks knew nothing of Colonel King’s application for additional water facilities, no such application was made and no additional facilities were needed. It was not unusual for Colonel King to act without the knowledge of other persons, and yet it was one of the unexpected results of the fire that this ignorance of the superintendent should play the important, double duty of protecting the water company and the superintendent of the public grounds from serious imputations. It is produced as evidence of a sufficient water supply and of the capacity and good working order of the plugs and hydrants on the grounds. It is quite at logical to infer that there has been no fire.. The insufficiency of the water supply on the grounds bas been quite as well established as the destruction of the State-house. THE NEWS has not been unaware of a disposition in some quarters to use the casualty at the State capitol for what appears very much like partisan ends. It is perhaps intended to put some obstacles out of the way that appear formidable. In such case let the logic of the events brought to view have full effect, and the acts and motives of those who asperse, as well as of those who now endeavor to avoid responsibility while insidiously reflecting upon others, be submitted to the test of public opinion.

In reply to the leading article of THE NEWS of the 12th inst., reflecting on the commissioner of insurance, and charging a lack of ordinary business capacity in failing to urge the governor and legislature to insure “that most dangerous fire-trap,” the capitol, alleging that “a professional insurance official” in the position of commissioner would have saved the State a quarter of a million dollars; that had the legislature heeded the demand of the former commissioner, Colonel King, to provide fire-plugs and hydrants on the capitol grounds, the building would have been easily saved, and pointing out the great calamity which would have occurred if the treasury, with the cash balance uninsured, should have burned, Commissioner Spaight says that every statement of fact in the article is erroneous, and, therefore, the disparaging inferences have no foundation.

“He says: The duties of commissioner of insurance are specifically set out in the act creating the office, and the duty of providing for insurance of public property is not one of them, either expressly or by implication. It is wholly outside of the scope of his duties. In the forty years of the existence of Texas as a Republic and as a State, no appropriation to insure the public buildings has ever been made, or, as far as he can learn, has been even proposed. He has yet to learn that any State in the Union has ever taken out a fire policy on a capitol. The appointment of “a professional insurance official” as commissioner is expressly prohibited by the act creating that office, the reason assigned for the prohibition being to guard against professional bias in favor of insurance corporations as against the insured policy-holders.

“Captain W. D. Mather, president and manager of the Austin Waterworks Company, states that fire plugs and hydrants were placed in the grounds in 1870; that he was called before the legislative committee and gave it as his opinion that they were amply sufficient for the purposes, that no demand, to his knowledge, had ever been made by Colonel King or other persons that the fire plugs and hydrants then put in the grounds should be increased in number or size. Captain Mather farther asserts that they are, in fact, sufficient, because there are only two fire engines in the city, and there are two fire-plugs, distant one block from the capitol, besides those at the capitol.

“Captain John Bremond, chief of the fire department, testified before the fire inquest that when the engines arrived at the ground, six fire engines, with ample water, could not have saved the building. THE NEWS ought not to have been ignorant of the well-known fact that no insurance company would insure the cash balance from fire. ‘Money, bullion, notes, accounts, deeds and evidences of debt’ are expressly excepted in all fire policies.
“Governor Coke, while in office, was urged by leading insurance men of this city to insure the capitol, but being a sound, practical business man, he declined for the reason that the state was abundantly able to insure its own property, and that it would be bad economy to pay insurance corporations to do it. The soundness of his judgment is illustrated by the case in hand. According to the estimate of THE NEWS the building and contents were worth a quarter of a million dollars. To insure this sum for, say, the thirty years the capitol has stood at 11/2 per cent, per annum (it could not have been done for less), it would have cost the State, with simple interest at 10 per cent added, the sum of $280,875. Thus the premiums saved to the State by insuring its own property will now replace the capitol and contents, with $40,000 to spare.

“Having thus corrected the facts of THE NEWS article, Commissioner Spaight says he is content to leave the criticisms and the motives which inspired them to the judgment of the public.”

As bad as the Capitol fire was, it could have been worse. Had the fierce flames converted into ashes the vast records in the Land Office, there would have followed a confusion in land titles across the state, that would have opened the way to endless trouble and expense, and such an unsettling of land titles as would have cost the people of Texas millions upon millions of money. Had the building in which the Comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices been so destroyed, with the records they contained, and that big cash balance filled the heavens with clouds of blackened paper, there would have been widespread distress in the state, touching the pockets of every man, woman and child in its borders. It was something, in reflection, to be thankful for. Had the bungling service, which turned the fire out of a stovepipe in one of the Attorney General’s rooms, into the document room, been transferred to, and had a similar effect at, the Land Office or the Comptroller’s and treasury building, the damage to the state might have been a hundred or a thousand times greater that it was.


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