All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1960

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1960/4


Walter Millis, in writing about the second half of the nineteenth century in America, once remarked that the period was one which few people who came through it would care to live over again. Others have scorned the “brown decades,” or the era of the “great barbecue.” So the historians have delivered their verdict on the post-Civil War years—and it cannot be said that the writers who provided some of the original raw material for the historians were misinterpreted. After all, Mark Twain wrote dis­paragingly of the “gilded age,” William Dean Howells directed his later fiction to socialistic conclu­sions, and Henry James spoke his mind on America by taking up res­idence in England.

In his 1877: Year of Violence (Bobbs-Merrill, 384 pp., $5.00), Robert V. Bruce, an engineer turned historian, has sought to provide a dramatic overture to the literature of denigration. His theme is the rise and fall of the first big national railroad strike, which started in West Virginia on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in July of 1877 as a response to a wage cut and quickly fanned out over the country. As Mr. Bruce works it out, the strike was a prel­ude to a lot of things. It gave labor the first inklings of its latent power. It served notice on employ­ers that the industrial revolution could not be carried through if the rights of stockholders were to be regarded as having priority over the rights of the workingman. And, finally, it struck the first faint chords in what was to be­come a grand requiem for the sup­posedly iniquitous laissez faire.

Since history itself has acted as if Mr. Bruce were correct in his moral evaluation of 1877, it is hard to argue with him. The events of 1877 did have a dismaying effect on a whole host of people. Looking back on his presidency, the Honor­able Rutherford B. Hayes was not at all sure that he had performed the whole of his duty in calling out federal troops to keep the freights and the mails rolling. Even when he was still President he began playing with the idea of railroad regulation. By the mid-eighties he was asking himself a strange ques­tion: “Shall the railroads govern the country, or shall the people govern the railroads?” As for the railroad managements themselves, says Mr. Bruce, they “now realized that labor policy could not be left to lesser officials.”

Interstate Commerce Commission

The Interstate Commerce Com­mission, which came at the end of the eighties, was one result of the “shock waves” sent out by 1877. Mr. Bruce seems to be satisfied that federal control was the in­strument which defeated the Marx­ists who, for the first time in American history, reared their ugly heads in the year of the Great Strike. The Marxists were particu­larly active in Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, towns which had large German immigrant popula­tions in the seventies. But the American habit of caution had been learned by an immigrant from London, Samuel Gompers, who pushed his own cigar maker’s union, the parent of the A.F. of L., into a program of step-by-step amelioration. It was Gompers who defeated the Marxists.

With Mr. Bruce’s assiduous fact-gathering the reader can have no legitimate quarrel. Nor can one deny that Mr. Bruce has written a dramatic and forceful book. But certain things about Mr. Bruce’s concluding chapter, the one called “Shock Waves,” don’t add up. The depression of the eighteen seven­ties came to an end with a bounti­ful crop in 1877 that the American farmer marketed at good prices. The so-called Granger decisions, which went against the farmers in March of 1877, did not lead to wicked collusion between the rail­roads to milk the farmer of his profits. For three years in the late seventies the crops rode to market and made money for the producers. Moreover, the railroads rescinded some of the pay cuts as soon as the depression had lifted. Laissez faire triumphed over the bad banking practices of the Jay Cooke era.

It Didn’t Happen That Way

The “year of violence,” then, turned out to be a pause in a gen­eral forward movement. Yet it is undeniable that the American peo­ple were themselves misled by the great strike into nurturing all manner of fears for the future. Looking ahead, they could only see the monster trusts combining to keep all save a handful of fortunate capitalists in complete misery. But as Garet Garrett has so convinc­ingly set forth in his The Ameri­can Story, it didn’t happen that way at all. The people were en­tirely wrong in their expectations.

Puzzled by Mr. Bruce’s tone, I went to that most useful of books, F. A. Harper’s Why Wages Rise. And there, on page eleven, was the graph which will long continue to mock all the historians who have specialized in slandering the late nineteenth century. The graph shows a yearly increase of 1.27 per cent in real wages for the period 1855-1895, a yearly increase of 0.55 per cent for 1896-1916, and a yearly increase of 2.47 per cent for 1917-1955. Another graph, on page 90, shows a steadily rising curve of productive capacity, with about half its benefits taken as goods and services and the other half taken as leisure. The dip in the late seventies is hardly noticeable on either graph when projected against the prevailing upward slopes of the lines. And the curi­ous thing about it is that there is no correlation between union ac­tivity and wage increases. Between real wages and productivity, how­ever, there is a correlation.

No doubt there would be a crude correlation between the rise in pro­ductivity and the increase in fed­eral regulation and control of the business system. But, despite Mr. Bruce, it would take more than mortal ingenuity to make out a convincing argument that the reg­ulation has caused the mounting productivity; the brakes do not run the automobile. Quite obvious­ly it is the productivity itself that pays for the regulation. And there is good reason to believe that there might have been even more produc­tivity if there had been less fed­eral meddling with the movement of money, men, and materials into increasing the per capita amount of tools available to the individual workingman.

Questionable Economics

The economics of Mr. Bruce’s book are suspect—and the author is half aware of this himself. Quite early in his book he remarks that farming, in 1877, was still the big­gest business in America; in num­ber of gainful workers it “out­stripped by a whisker all other classifications put together.” More­over, country folks still outnum­bered city folks “better than two to one.” So it is doubtful that the railroad strike really threatened the foundations of society. More­over, there was a reason why the railroad managers cut wages dur­ing the depression of the seven­ties: they had to bid high for the capital needed to push their lines to the West and to buy the steadily improving equipment. The “hunger for capital” was not expressed at the long-term expense of the Amer­ican workingman; on the contrary, it led directly to a vast prolifera­tion of jobs. Everywhere the rail­roads went, production followed.

The “hunger for capital,” which took the form of paying high divi­dends to get it, resulted in better livings for more people—and what is this if it is not “social justice”?

If Mr. Bruce’s book is economi­cally suspect, the author is right about the shortsighted public re­lations aspects of the railroads’ behavior in the seventies. The big trunk lines seemed to act as a unit in “ganging up to subjugate their employees in detail.” By doing this they invited united action by the trainmen. The “industry-wide” as­pects of the railroad managements’ anti-union activities provoked an industry-wide response. An indus­try which had given an impression that it had been dependent on the federal bounty of land grants and subsidies should have bent over backwards to avoid any suspicion of concerted arrogance.

The McKinley Era

Even so, there is little point at this late date in harping on the alleged “social Darwinism” of the railroad managers. In spouting the well-worn phrases of anticapitalist literature, Mr. Bruce is bowing to an antiquated convention. This convention has yet to answer Mr. Harper’s two eloquent graphs. It also has to explain away the enor­mous difference between the United States of 1877 and the United States which the reader will en­counter in Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley (Harper, 686 pp., $7.50).

In the nineties, before the elec­tion of McKinley, there was a de­pression that was fully as bad as that of 1877. But the nation showed enormous recuperative powers: un­der the placid surface of the eight­een eighties, something had hap­pened. American productivity had established its base. And McKin­ley profited by this despite his foolishness about insisting on a high tariff that the economics of mass production was shortly to un­dercut.

Aside from the tariff, Miss Leech makes McKinley out to have been both an attractive and an en­lightened man—not at all the fusty “reactionary” of popular portraiture. He was not as strong as he might have been; after all, he allowed himself to be pushed into the Spanish-American War against his personal judgment. But he and his political manager, Mark Hanna, were both quite sincere—and quite right—in arguing that William Jennings Bryan’s infla­tionism would have been “anti-labor” in its actual effect. Far from being a Big Business party in 1896 and 1900, the Republican Party was really and truly the party of the “full dinner pail.” And the Ohio workingman of 1896 knew McKinley as a friend, even as this workingman’s grandchil­dren knew that another Ohioan, Bob Taft, was really in their corner a half century later.

Miss Leech’s book has a pleas­ant, honest quality. And its dedi­cation—to “those whose child­hood knew the three-dimensional stereopticon and the colorful veloc­ity of the magic lantern; who re­member the wonder of the known voice pulsating over the telephone wire, and the exhilaration of the privileged pioneers of automotive power, speeding at twenty miles an hour through a distracted coun­tryside”—shows how wrong the “literature of denigration” has been. Despite this denigration, we have had a great history since 1877. It is time for authors like Mr. Bruce to reckon with F. A. Harper’s graphs.

Ernest Benn—Counsel For

Liberty

by Deryck Abel

. (London: Ernest Benn, Ltd. 192 pp. 21 shillings.)

Reviewed by Wilfred Altman

Benn was an outstanding figure of his time. Business genius, un­compromising fighter for liber­tarian ideas and sound economics, individualist and publicist, he re­mained, until his death in 1954, the gifted controversialist. During the height of Benn’s most notable campaigns, Mr. Abel became a close associate. His book is no con­ventional biography. It is a por­trait of a mind and a personality. A preface by Benn’s eldest son furnishes some personal data.

Sir Ernest Benn was a young man when he took over control of the family’s small publishing busi­ness. Ever a firm believer in a philosophy of high-production­high – wages – high – profits – and -low-prices, he built up a trade press empire as well as a book publishing concern. Arnold Ben­nett and H. G. Wells were among its authors. A “sixpenny” library pioneered in the twenties by Benn could claim book sales running in­to millions. These were the pre­cursors of the modern paperbacks.

Benn relished the conduct of his business, yet found time for a pro­digious amount of public work—speaking, writing, broadcasting, and debating. As a Liberal of the Manchester School, a crusader for liberty and for the rights of the individual, he was well equipped with the gifts of high-mindedness and practicality. He was a disciple of Bastiat and possessed some­thing of Bastiat’s wit. His ideals had been fashioned by Spencer, Cobden, and Mill; his views tested and tempered by the ways of Whitehall.

In 1921, he paid his first visit to the United States where, inciden­tally, he was so impressed after a day at Princeton that he sent his eldest son there the following year. “The whole force of public opinion in America,” he wrote on his re­turn, “is directed to teaching its people how to push. Our public opinion… seems to be concerned with teaching our people how to lean.”

Later years, certainly every year from 1944 until 1953, brought invitation after invitation to Benn from Individualist leaders in the States to undertake coast-to-coast lecture tours for the propagation of the libertarian cause. But as Mr. Abel tells us, he steadfastly declined them all. “Benn refused to enter America a pauper, de­pendent, as he put it, upon the charity of his hosts save for a £5 note in his wallet vouchsafed him by the administrators of exchange control.”

Long before his individualist ideas were to find expression through the movements that were to follow, he found the perfect outlet for his views in prolific con­tributions to the press. Between 1921 and 1926, he contributed some 25,000 words to the corre­spondence columns of The Times alone—letters which the editor allowed him to publish in book form; letters which, as the New

York Herald Tribune commented, “are vitally English, but this is the kind of English character that laid the foundation of the United States.”

Twice, in 1926 and again in 1941, Benn and many like-minded colleagues from all walks of life created the Individualist Book­shop and the Society of Individual­ists as the media for their ever expanding movement. Successful meetings were held in leading centers throughout Britain. And for many years, regular lunches attracted hundreds of prominent guests, and speakers of the caliber of Lord Leverhulme, Chairman of the Unilever empire; Lord Perry, Chairman of Fords (in Britain); Sir Carleton Allen, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford; F. W. Hirst, former editor of The Econ­omist and biographer of Morley, Jefferson, and Adam Smith; and Greville Poke, periodical publisher.

Benn’s attitude, epitomized in Tom Paine’s dictum that “govern­ment even at its best state is but a necessary evil,” often made him appear extremist and, to some, ec­centric. Yet as The Times put it: “It was easy to mock his views, for he knew no middle way and was often exaggerated in the em­phasis of his warnings…. He was the spokesman of no interest but of an idea—of one aspect of Lib­eralism which not even a collectivist society, if it wishes to remain free, dare ignore.” He foresaw and feared the prospect of the over-organized, over-regimented society. The techniques and de­vices of the new collectivist age infuriated him.

The concept of the Minister/ Judge—the minister who is judge in his own case—would have pro­voked his fiery wrath. The modern British practice of diverting land compulsorily acquired for one pur­pose to a wholly different purpose without as much as “by your leave” would have provoked a hun­dred of his famous “Murmerings.” He even refused to complete his Census form. The Census regula­tion, he insisted, committed more than one breach of the liberty of the subject. His campaign against the identity card—”the English­man’s badge of servitude”—car­ried the libertarian cause to vic­tory in the historic Willcock case of 1951.

Mr. Deryck Abel has written a lively, scholarly narrative, distin­guished for its clarity of diction and elegance of style. Benn’s ideas on social and political questions may have seemed extremist to those who recoiled from going the whole way with him, but he was pre-eminently the spokesman and symbol of Western man’s love of liberty in all its contexts. The de­tailed argumentation of this study will commend itself to everyone who cherishes personal and civic
liberty and public economy, alike in Britain and the United States.

United States

Aid And Indian Economic Develop­ment

by P. T. Bauer . (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Association. 119 pp. $1.00.)

Reviewed by Edwin McDowell

Communist China excepted, no country in the world offers so many contrasts and problems as India. She has a population of 400 million plus (greater than all of South America, Africa, and Aus­tralia combined) and more than 700 dialects. The Indian nation is as poor as it is populous. Its $60 per capital annual income is among the lowest in the world, about one-fortieth of that of the United States, and is reflected in its half a million beggars and 7 million unemployed.

India today is the largest re­cipient of American economic aid, having received from $1.5 to $2 billion, thereby raising an impor­tant question: Will this aid benefit the Indian citizen and at the same time cause that nation to align it­self with the West?

Definitely not, says author P. T. Bauer, British economist. Given the current direction of Indian economic policy, increasing for­eign aid “would be much more likely to retard the rise of general living standards in India than to accelerate it, and to obstruct rather than promote the emergence of a society resistant to totali­tarian appeal.”

There are many reasons for Bauer’s conclusions, not the least of them being socialist Prime Min­ister Nehru’s firm antipathy toward capitalism. The principal goal of Indian economic planning—formally accepted by the Indian Parliament in 1954, and reiterated many times since—is “the adop­tion of the socialist pattern of so­ciety.” This socialist system, with its Soviet-like five-year economic plans, shows itself in massive ex­penditures on heavy industry, small expenditures on agriculture, limitations on consumer goods, and the countless other restrictions which symbolize a collectivist economy.

Professor Bauer rejects aid to India (as proposed in the Senate by the Kennedy-Cooper Resolu­tion) not so much because of the expense to the American taxpayer but because of the cost to India. The U.S., pursuing such a policy, “would make it inevitable that [India] is pushed further in the direction… of a completely social­ized economy… in which the range of choice of individuals is severely circumscribed… and in which the state is all powerful.” What the author recommends is that U.S. aid be withheld until the Indian government pursues “a policy designed to raise living standards and to promote an antitotalitarian society.”

“The shape and direction of the aid program of the United States,” author Bauer writes, “will un­doubtedly be a major factor in in­fluencing the economic policy of the government of India. It is much to be hoped that the re­sources of the United States will be harnessed to policies designed to promote the welfare of the In­dian masses, rather than to poli­cies designed to socialize or even to sovietize the most populous country of the non-Communist world.”    

The Adams-Jefferson Letters edited by Lester J. Cappon

. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. Two Volumes, $12.50.)

Reviewed by Robert Thornton

In His Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Albert Jay Nock wrote that the letters which passed between John Adams and Thomas Jeffer­son comprised “one of the truly great correspondences in literary history.” In his “biography” of Mr. Jefferson, written seventeen years earlier in 1926, Mr. Nock wrote optimistically:

“Perhaps the re­cent increase of interest in the literature of that period will touch the flinty heart of some publisher and induce him to let the world once more see, in accessible and convenient form, the best that the period could do.” Well, at last Mr. Nock can rest easy, for it has been done. This set, published for the Institute of Early American His­tory and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, contains the complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams.

For a few persons nothing more need be said. They will hasten to their library or bookstore for a copy, then read, “in accessible and convenient form,” the remarkable correspondence between two of our Founding Fathers who were, at once, so very much alike and so different in their ideas. For others, a few more words are necessary.

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson, “author of the Declaration of American Independ­ence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” From any angle he was a great man. That delightful champion of tolerance, Hendrik Willem van Loon, offered this view of the sage of Monticello: “Early in the six­teenth century it was said of Eras­mus, the great humanist, that he liked the Popish way of living but the Lutheran way of thinking. With an equal degree of truthful­ness it can be stated of Jefferson that he liked the aristocratic way of thinking and the democratic way of living.” And, here is John Adams’ first impression of Jeffer­son:

Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June 1775, and brought with him a reputation of literature, science, and a happy talent of composition… Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation… that he soon seized upon my heart.

Relatively little has been written about John Adams, in the words of van Loon, “a person of tremendous usefulness during a period of un­rest, a rock-ribbed, humorless, and aloof personage, as indifferent to royal displeasure or popular ap­proval as a chunk of Vermont mar­ble.” Consequently, he made many enemies and his admirers are few in number. But judging by Mr. Adams’ contributions to the Revo­lutionary cause, this poor treat­ment is hardly fair. James Street had this to say about the re­nowned citizen of Quincy:

We have never given John Adams his due. He was to win crowns that other men would wear. He did a lot of the spadework for our Constitu­tion, and yet that monument is to the glory of James Madison who shaped it and polished it. He was a conservative’s conservative in an age of liberalism, an oligarchist at a time when democracy was pipping the shell. He died an unpopular man. But we owe him much, this John Adams who had respect for justice and who, like Franklin, really shoved in his blue chips when the revolu­tionary game got going.

John Adams and Thomas Jeffer­son had been very close during the Revolution and immediately there­after, but toward the end of the century political differences sepa­rated them; probably it was the fanatics in both parties who were responsible for this unfortunate separation. The period of coolness lasted a dozen or so years. Finally, Dr. Benjamin Rush was successful in affecting a reconciliation be­tween the two old men, and their correspondence resumed in 1812. It began with John Adams writing to Mr. Jefferson that he was send­ing him “two pieces of homespun.” Mr. Jefferson immediately an­swered and thanked him for the homespun (not yet received) which he thought was cloth work of some sort. Actually it was, as Mr. Adams told him in his next letter, two volumes written by his son, John Quincy Adams. The ice having been broken, many letters passed between Monticello and Quincy from 1812 until 1826.

When writing about two menthe likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a few words are just not enough; but one quotation must suffice here—a quotation from one of Mr. Jefferson’s letters to Mr. Adams near the end of their lives in this world. The op­timism of the writer is especially refreshing today, and it should be kept in mind that Mr. Jefferson was not an idle dreamer, specu­lating on humanity from the con­fines of an ivory tower. Also to be remembered is the fact that he was wise enough to predict in 1821 that “our government is now tak­ing so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to de­struction, to wit: by consolidation first (i.e. centralization) and then corruption, its necessary conse­quence.”

I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on a steady advance. We have seen indeed, once within the record of history, the complete eclipse of the human mind continuing for centuries…. Even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism, on the contrary, they will consume these en­gines and all who work them.

John Adams and Thomas Jeffer­son both died on July 4, 1826, ex­actly fifty years after taking part in one of the greatest events of world history. Both were great men. James Street once observed that “it has been a long time be­tween Jeffersons.” The same may be said of John Adams.

Human Nature And The Human Condition by Joseph Wood Krutch.

(New York: Random House. 211 pp. $3.95.)

Reviewed by Frederick Walker

With engaging urbanity Joseph Wood Krutch surveys our present predicament. His are the insights and comments of an original, old style humanist exploring our “age of anxiety.” Far from being taken in by the dubious assumptions, theories, and conjectures which motivate so many of our contem­poraries, Dr. Krutch applies the searching skepticism of a civilized and free man to what is currently being foisted on us. His conclu­sions are disturbing; and we should be disturbed, for we have too long assumed that this is the “greatest and richest civilization” ever heard of—hence the most successful. Dr. Krutch dissents. Unless we mend our ways and base our activities and aspirations on human nature as revealed by re­corded history, the author implies we may soon be the greatest suc­cess since the dinosaur!

Take advertising, as legitimate an enterprise as any, but one which lapses into extravagant dis­tortions to the extent that it mir­rors our society’s warped value system. It is a trade which has been inflated into a position as in­fluential as that once occupied by church and school. The practi­tioners of this trade, which is now a “built in” factor in our economy, must be subservient to every whim of the consumer no matter how infantile. They engage in the de­liberate creation of new wants which are hardly necessary for a well-balanced existence. This has led Dr. Krutch to formulate a Rich Richard’s Almanack, a new com­pendium which includes the motto, “Waste or you will want.” This naturally leads the author to con­siderations of expanding popula­tions and diminishing natural re­sources, problems now assuming major importance even in the pop­ular mind.

Neatly coupled with our new motto is our present custom of ever-expanding credit and borrow­ing to keep the consumer buying things which he may not really need, and for which he cannot pay. Since we indulge in deficit finan­cing with a vengeance in private life, it is no wonder that deficit financing in government is accepted with so little opposition. Dr. Krutch might have gone on to say that the most exemplary specimen of spending and wasting is the national government.

Our slovenly educational system is viewed at length. This is a field in which Dr. Krutch, as an emi­nent professor, is at home. The present trend to adapt everything to a norm of mediocrity leads to reflections on where our leadership is to come from when the populace will have been “educated” as pain­lessly as possible to not read, think, or aspire.

Similarly, Dr. Krutch claims, we have exhausted our philosophical and moral capital, and must re­place it if we are to survive. Re­jecting the present popular rela­tivist position and all the mechan­ist and Marxian conclusions that environment alone makes the man, he reaffirms an innate sense of right and wrong in men, a natural devotion to justice and freedom, and a native responsiveness to higher claims than a merely physi­cally comfortable existence. He em­phatically points out that litera­ture and the fine arts give a truer picture of man than all the mut­tered and awkwardly phrased treatises of sociologists, anthro­pologists, and psychologists. In making this point Dr. Krutch com­pares the present dim and bleak picture of man portrayed by con­temporary writers and artists with the pictures presented by the great writers and artists of the past. He stresses the urgent need for mature aspiration on the part of all courageous men to tran­scend the present precarious situa­tion, and become their true selves. Once more the real spirit of Amer­ica has spoken.

 


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.