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I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to?

I'm quite confused about the second "what" by "what decision they may come to", what role does it play in the sentence? Does it refer to the previous "it"? If "I think" is followed by a declarative sentence, why can we use a rhetorical question?

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The question

What is it to them?

means "How does it concern them in any way? How does it matter to them?" The implication is that the questioner believes it is not relevant to them, that it holds no significance for them. The questioner is scoffing at the idea that it has some relevance for them. The question has the semantic force of an assertion, and that makes it all the more possible as the complement of "I think".

I think, what is it to them?

So, to paraphrase the passage, that these politicians are selecting a candidate will have no relevance for any independent, intelligent, and respectable man. Men of such sound character will simply ignore what those politicians are doing.

In the passage, dummy it anticipates the noun-phrase "what(ever) decision they may come to", for which it stands as proxy in the cleft. How does whatever decision they may come to matter to intelligent men? Today we would be likely to say "whatever" instead of "what".

What is {it} to them?

What is {what[ever] decision they may come to} to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man?

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/002690.html

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  • Is it equal to "No matter what decision politicians may come to, how does it matter to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man "? I have another question, isn't "whatever decision..." followed by a declarative sentence?
    – Leon Zero
    Mar 9 '17 at 14:11
  • they may come to is a relative clause modifying decision, not a declarative sentence. Whatever question you may have, it can be answered here on ELL. Mar 9 '17 at 14:12
  • My fault, I mean why we can use "what is it to them" after "whatever decision they may come to"? I only know declarative sentences can be put after "I think" and that.
    – Leon Zero
    Mar 9 '17 at 14:22
  • I think usually wants a statement (a declaration of some fact) as its complement. I think the earth is mostly water. But if a question has the force of a declaration on the semantic level, it can complement I think. Mar 9 '17 at 14:30
  • Yes, it could be paraphrased "my opinion is". Mar 9 '17 at 14:32

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