To a Citizen of the Old School

MARCH, 1912


OUR talk last night set me to thinking. It was the first time during all the years of our acquaintance that I had ever heard you speak in a discouraged tone. You have always been healthy to a fault, and your good-humor has been contagious. Especially has it been pleasant to hear you talk about the country and its Manifest Destiny.

I remember, some years ago, how merrily you used to laugh about the ‘calamity-howler,’ whose habitat at that time was Kansas. The farmers of Kansas were not then as prosperous as they are now. When several bad years came together they did n’t like it, and began to make complaints. Their raucous cries you found very amusing.

The calamity-howler, being ignorant of the laws of political economy and of the conditions of progress, did not take his calamities in the spirit in which they were offered to him by the rest of the country. He did not find satisfaction in the thought that other people were prosperous though he was not. Instead of acting reasonably and voting the straight ticket from motives of party loyalty, he raised all sorts of irrelevant issues. He treated Prosperity as if it were a local issue, instead of a plank in the National Platform.

Now, all this was opposed to your good-natured philosophy of progress. You were eminently practical, and it was a part of your creed never to ‘ go behind the returns.’ As to Prosperity, it was ‘first come, first served.’ In this land of opportunity the person who first sees an opportunity should take it, asking no questions as to why he came by it. It is his by right of discovery.

You were always a great believer in the good old American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. This was a big country and destined to grow bigger. To you bigness was its own excuse for being. Optimism was as natural as breathing. It was manifest destiny that cities and corporations and locomotives and armies and navies and national debts and daily newspapers with their Sunday supplements and bank clearances and tariffs and insurance companies and the price of living should go up. It was all according to a beautiful natural law, ‘as fire ascending seeks the sun.’ Besides these things, it was manifest destiny that other things not so good should grow bigger also,—graft and slums and foolish luxury. They were all involved in the increasing bigness of things.

Sometimes you would grumble about them, but in a good-natured way, as one who recognized their inevitability. Just as you said, boys will be boys, so you said, politicians will be politicians, and business is business. If one is living in a growing country he must not begrudge the cost of the incidentals.

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In your talk there was a cheerful cynicism which amazed the slowerwitted foreigner. You talked of the pickings and stealings of your elected officers as you would of the pranks of a precocious youngster. It was all a part of the day’s growth. Yet you were really public-spirited. You would have sprung to arms in a moment if you had thought that your country was in danger or that its institutions were being undermined.

Your good-natured tolerance was a part of your philosophy of life. It was bound up in your triumphant Americanism. You were a hero-worshiper, and you delighted in ‘big men.’ The big men who gained the prizes were efficient and unscrupulous and unassuming; that is, they never assumed to be better than their neighbors. They looked ahead, they saw how things were going, and went with them. And on the whole, things, you believed, were going well. Though they were not scrupulously just, these big men were generous, and were willing to give away what they had acquired. Though grasping, they were not avaricious. They grasped things with the strong prehensile grasp of the infant, rather than with the clutch of the miser. They took them because they were there, and not because they had any well-defined idea as to whether they belonged to them or not.

These big men were very likeable. They were engrossed in big projects, and they were doing necessary work in the development of the country. They naturally took the easiest and most direct methods to get at results. They would not go out of the way to corrupt a legislature any more than they would go out of the way to find a range of mountains. But if the mountain stood in the way of the railroad, they would go through it regardless of expense. If the legislature was in their way, they would deal with it as best they could. They were willing to pay what it cost to accomplish a purpose which they believed was good.

Their attitude toward the Public was one which you did not criticize, for it seemed to you to be reasonable. The Public was an abstraction, like Nature. We are all under the laws of Nature. But Nature does n’t mind whether we consciously obey or not. She goes her way, and we go ours. We get all she will let us have. So with the Public. The Public was not regarded as a person or as an aggregate of persons, it was the potentiality of wealth. They never thought of the Public as being starved or stunted, or even as being seriously inconvenienced because of what they took from it, any more than they thought of Nature being the poorer because of the electricity which they induced to run along their wires. A public franchise was a plum growing on a convenient tree. A wise man would wait till it was ripe and then, when no one was looking, would pick it for himself. The whole transaction was a trial of wits between rival pickers. A special privilege, according to this view, involved no special obligations; it was a reward for special abilities. Once given, it was property to be enjoyed in perpetuity.

This was the code of ethics which you, in common with multitudes of American citizens, accepted. You have yourself prospered. Indeed things had gone so well with you in this best of all countries that any fundamental change seemed unthinkable.

But that a change has come seems evident from your conversation last night. All that fine optimism which your friends have admired seemed to have deserted you. There was a querulous note which was strangely out of keeping with your usual disposition. It was what you have been accustomed to stigmatize as un-American. When you discussed the present state of the country you talked — you will pardon me for saying it — for all the world like a calamity-howler.

The country, you said, is in a bad way, and it must be awakened from its lethargy. After a period of unexampled prosperity and marvelous development, something has happened. Just what it is you don’t really know, but it’s very alarming. Instead of working together for Prosperity, the people are listening to demagogues, and trying all sorts of experiments, half of which you are sure are unconstitutional. The captains of industry who have made this the biggest country in the world are thwarted in their plans for further expansion.

There are people who are criticizing the courts, and there are courts which are criticizing business enterprises that they don’t understand. There are socalled experts — mere college professors — who are tinkering the tariff. There are over-zealous executives who are currying favor with the crowd by enforcing laws which are well enough on the statute-books, but which were never meant to go further. As if matters were not bad enough already, there are demagogues who are stirring up class-feeling by proposing new laws. Party loyalty is being undermined, and the new generation does n’t half understand the great issues which the two old parties have always stood for.

New and divisive issues which lead only to faction are presented, so that the voters are confused. The great principle of Representative Government, on which the Republic was founded, is being attacked. Instead of choosing experienced men to direct public policy there is an appeal to the passions of the mob. The result of all this agitation is an unsettlement that paralyzes business. The United States is in danger of losing the race for commercial supremacy. Germany will forge ahead of us. Japan will catch us. Socialism and the Yellow Peril will be upon us. The Man on Horseback will appear, and what shall we do then?

I did not understand whether you looked for these perils to come together, or whether they were to appear in orderly succession. But I came to the conclusion that either the country is in a bad way, or you are. You will pardon me if I choose the latter alternative, for I too am an optimistic American, and I like to choose the lesser of two evils. If there is an attack of ‘hysteria’ I should like to think of it as somewhat localized, rather than as having suddenly attacked the whole country.

Now, my opinion is that the American people were never minding their own business more good-humoredly and imperturbably than at the present moment. They have been slowly and silently making up their minds, and now they are beginning to express a deliberate judgment. What you take to be the noise of demagogues, I consider to be the sober sense of a great people which is just finding adequate expression.

You seem to be afraid of an impending revolution, and picture it as a sort of French Revolution, a destructive overturn of all existing institutions. But may not the revolution which we are passing through be something different, — a great American revolution, which is being carried through in the characteristic American fashion?

Walt Whitman expresses the great characteristic of American history.

‘Here is what moves in magnificent masses “careless of particulars.” '

It is this mass movement, slow at first, but swift and irresistible when the mass has come to consciousness of its own tendency, which has always confounded astute persons who have been interested only in particulars. It is a movement like that of the Mississippi at flood-time. The great river flows within its banks as long as it can. But the time comes when the barriers are too frail to hold back the mighty waters. Then the river makes, very quickly, a new channel for itself. You cannot understand what has happened till you take into account the magnitude of the river itself.

Now, the successful man of affairs, who has been intent on the incidents of the passing day, is often strangely oblivious of the mass movements. You, for example, are disturbed by the unrest which is manifest, and you look for some one whom you can blame for the disturbance. But perhaps no one is to blame.

I think that what is happening may be traced to a sufficient cause. We are approaching the end of one great era in American history and we are preparing, as best we may, for a new era. The consciousness of the magnitude of the change has come to us rather suddenly. One big job which has absorbed the energies and stimulated the ambition of Americans for three hundred years is practically finished. Some work still remains to be done on it, but it no longer demands the highest ability. The end is in sight.

This work has been the settlement of a vast territory lying between the Atlantic and Pacific, with a population of white men. It was a task so big in itself that it fired the imagination and developed that peculiar type of character that we call American. In its outlines the task was so broad and simple that it could be comprehended by the most ordinary intelligence. It was so inevitable that it impressed upon all those who engaged in it the belief in Manifest Destiny.

What has been treated by incompetent critics as mere boastfulness has in reality been practical sagacity and foresight. Sam Slick was only expressing a truth when he said, ‘The Yankees see further than most folks.’ This was not because of any innate cleverness but because of their advantage in position. Americans have had a more unobstructed view of the future than had the people of the overcrowded Old World. The settlers on the shores of the Atlantic had behind them a region which belonged to them and their children. They soon became aware of the riches of this hinterland and of its meaning for the future. This vast region must be settled. Roads must be built over the mountains, the forests must be felled, mines must be opened up, farms must be brought under the plough, great cities must be built by the rivers and lakes, there must be schools and churches and markets established where now the tribes of Indians roam. The surplus millions of Europe must be transported to this wilderness.

It was a big task and yet a simple one. The movement was as obvious as that of Niagara — Niagara is wonderful but inevitable. A great deal of water flowing over a great deal of rock, that is all there is of it. The destiny of America was equally obvious from the beginning. Here was a great deal of land which was destined to be inhabited by a great many people.

From the very first the future greatness of the land was seen by open-eyed explorers. They all were able to appreciate it. Captain John Smith does not compare Virginia with Great Britain; he compares it to the whole of Europe. After mentioning the natural resources of each country, he declares that the new land had all these and more, and needed only men to develop them. And Captain John Smith’s forecast has proved to be correct.

In the first half of the last century, a party of twenty young men from Cambridge, Massachusetts, started on what at that time was a great adventure, the overland journey to Oregon. The preface to Wyeth’s Oregon Expedition throws light on the ideas of those who were not statesmen or captains of industry, but only plain American citizens sharing the vision which was common.

‘The spot where our adventurer was born and grew up had many peculiar and desirable advantages over most others in the County of Middlesex. Besides rich pasturage, numerous dairies, and profitable orchards, it possessed the luxuries of well-cultivated gardens of all sorts of culinary vegetables, and all within three miles of Boston Market House, and two miles of the largest live-cattle market in New England.' Besides these blessings there is enumerated ‘a body of water commonly called Fresh Pond.’

‘But Mr. Wyeth said, “All this availeth me nothing, so long as I read books in which I find that by going only about four thousand miles overland, from the shore of our Atlantic to the shore of the Pacific, after we have there entrapped and killed the beavers and otters, we shall be able, after building vessels for the purpose, to carry our most valuable peltry to China and Cochin China, our sealskins to Japan, and our superfluous grain to various Asiatic ports, and lumber to the Spanish settlements on the Pacific; and to become rich by underworking and underselling the people of Hindoostan; and, to crown all, to extend far and wide the traffic in oil, by killing tame whales on the spot, instead of sailing around the stormy region of Cape Horn.”

‘ All these advantages and more were suggested to divers discontented and impatient young men. Talk to them of the great labor, toil, risk, and they would turn a deaf ear to you; argue with them and you might as well reason with a snow-storm.'

If you would understand the driving power of America you must understand ’the divers discontented and impatient young men ’ who in each generation have found in the American wilderness an outlet for their energies. In the rough contacts with untamed Nature they learned to be resourceful. Emerson declared that the country went on most satisfactorily, not when it was in the hands of the respectable Whigs, but when in the hands of ‘these rough riders — legislators in shirtsleeves— Hoosier, Sucker, Wolverine, Badger — or whatever hard-head Arkansas, Oregon, or Utah sends, halforator, half-assassin, to represent its wrath and cupidity at Washington.'

The men who made America had an ‘excess of virility.' ‘Men of this surcharge of arterial blood cannot live on nuts, herb tea, and elegies; cannot read novels and play whist; cannot satisfy all their wants at the Thursday Lecture and the Boston Athenæum. They pine for adventure and must go to Pike’s Peak; had rather die by the hatchet of the Pawnee than sit all day and every day at the counting-room desk. They are made for war, for the sea, for mining, hunting, and clearing, and the joy of eventful living.'

In Emerson’s day there was ample scope for all these varied energies on the frontier. ‘There are Oregons, Californias, and Exploring Expeditions enough appertaining to America to find them in files to gnaw and crocodiles to eat.'

But it must have occurred to some one to ask, ‘What will happen when the Oregons and Californias are filled up?’ Well, the answer is, ’See what is happening now.’ Instead of settling down to herb tea and elegies, Young America, having finished one big job, is looking for another. The noises which disturb you are not the cries of an angry proletariat, but are the shouts of eager young fellows who are finding new opportunities. They have the same desire to do big things, the same joy in eventful living, that you had thirty years ago. Only the tasks that challenge them have taken a different form.

When you hear the words ‘ Conservation,’ ’Social Service,’ ‘Social Justice,’ and the like, you are apt to dismiss them as mere fads. You think of the catchwords of ineffective reformers whom you have known from your youth. But the fact is that they represent to-day the enthusiasms of a new generation. They are big things, with big men behind them. They represent the Oregons and the Californias toward which sturdy pioneers are moving, undeterred by obstacles.

The live questions to-day concern not the material so much as the moral development of the nation. For it is seen that the future welfare of the people depends on the creation of a finer type of civic life. Is this still to be a land of opportunity? Ninety millions of people are already here. What shall be done with the next ninety millions? That wealth is to increase goes without saying. But how is it to be distributed? Are we tending to a Plutocracy, or can a real Democracy hold its own ? Powerful machinery has been invented. How can this machinery be controlled and used for truly human ends? We have learned the economies that result from organization. Who is to get the benefit of these economies?

So long as such questions were merely academic, practical persons like yourself paid little attention to them. Now they are being asked by persons as practical as yourself who are intent on ’getting results.’ And what is more, they employ the instruments of precision furnished by modern science.

You have been pleased over the millions of dollars which have been lavished on education. The fruits of this are now being seen. Hosts of able young men have been studying Government and Sociology and Economics and History. These have been the most popular courses in all our colleges. And they have been studied in a new way. The old formulas and the old methods have been fearlessly criticized. New standards of efficiency have been presented. The scientific method has been extended to the sphere of moral relations. It has been demonstrated to these young men that the resources of the country may be indefinitely increased by the continuous application of trained intelligence to definite ends. The old Malthusian doctrine has given way before applied science. The population may be doubled and the standard of living increased at the same time, if we plan intelligently. The expert can serve the public as efficiently as he has served private interests, if only the public can be educated to appreciate him.

When we talk about what is more or less vaguely called the ‘progressive’ movement, which at the present time appears in American politics, this is what is really meant. It is the appearance in force of a generation that has turned its attention to a new set of problems, and is attempting to solve them by scientific methods. It is believed that there is a Science of Government as well as an Art of Politics. The new generation has a respect, born of experience, for the expert. It seeks the man who knows rather than the clever manager. It demands of public servants not simply that they be honest, but that they be efficient.

Its attitude to the political boss is decidedly less respectful than that to which you were accustomed. You looked upon him as a remarkably astute character, and you attributed to him an uncanny ability to forecast the future. These young men have discovered that his ability is only a vulgar error. Remove the conditions created by public indifference and ignorance, and he vanishes. In restoring power to the people, they fine that a hundred useful things can be done which the political wiseacres declared to be impossible.

When I consider the new and vigorous forces in American life I cannot agree with your apprehensions; but there is one thing which you said with which I heartily agree. You said that you wished we might settle down to sound and constructive work, and get rid of the ‘muck-raker.’

I agree with you that the muckraker stands in the way of large plans for betterment. But it might be well to refresh our minds in regard to the man with the muck-rake. His character was most admirably drawn by Bunyan: —

’The Interpreter takes them apart again, and has them first into a room where was a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muckrake in his hand. There stood also one over his head with a celestial crown in His hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck-rake, but the man did neither look up nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor.

‘Then said Christiana, “I persuade myself that I know somewhat the meaning of this; for this is the figure of a man of this world, is it not, good sir?”

‘ “Thou hast said right,” said he. . . .

‘ “Then,” said Christiana, ‘O deliver me from this muck-rake.”

'"That prayer,” said the Interpreter, “has lain by till it is almost rusty.

‘ Give me not riches,’is scarce the prayer of one in ten thousand.” ’

The man with the muck-rake, then, is one who can look no way but downward, and is so intent on collecting riches for himself that he does not see or regard any higher interests. I agree with you that if we are to have any constructive work in American politics the first thing is to get rid of the man with the muck-rake, and to put in his place the Man with a Vision.