The West's New Vision
ONLY the other day, it seems, we heard from the Middle West murmurings that told of storm and stress. Financial sufferings afflicted the settler; political and social upheavals upset established legislation; the atmosphere was charged with criticism of vested rights and of moneyed centres. To the older commonwealths the spectacle was in a degree amusing, yet it had its serious side. It was fashionable to depict the Western legislator as a modern Don Quixote, charging at fancied ills and exhausting himself by his efforts; and to describe the settler as an iconoclast, wasting his precious time in vague attempts to regulate the universe.
Only the other day — yet nearly a quarter century has passed and the West has been making new history. For a decade there was readjustment, the establishment in tangible form of some of the ideas born of the tempest; another decade of abounding prosperity, when the agitator became in a modest way a capitalist and began to think of his own vested rights; then the new era of Established Things, and the acceptance of the responsibilities that come with wealth and power.
Foremost in the influences that have changed the mental attitude of the Westerner has been his recognition of the oneness of the nation. So long as it was necessary to obtain from the savings accounts of the older states the funds with which to develop new lands, it was natural that there should be a feeling of dependence — galling to the enthusiastic pioneer whose dreams outran his accomplishments. In the reaction he visited upon those whose money he had used, and was using, accusations of self-interest. The result was the creation of an imaginary Capitalist, whose heel ground down the borrower and who sought his own welfare at the expense of the debtor.
But with the advance of prosperity came a new point of view. The Westerner, being released from his exacting toil and becoming familiar with other parts of the country, gained new knowledge. He noticed as he journeyed to New York or Boston that, after he had crossed the Mississippi, he passed through town after town where factories employing thousands of men lined the streets. He did some thinking. Those men and their families must consume the products of the agricultural states; their prosperity meant his own. After all, not fearsome Wall Street, but the workers who were making things for men to use, constituted the principal part of the East. He awoke to a realization that his prosperity, his ability to obtain good prices for his products, depended on something more than the number of bushels per acre he could raise, and that part of his future success depended also on becoming a manufacturer himself. The psychology of this realization expressed itself in mutual interest; it expanded into every line of endeavor. It was no longer popular to oppose instinctively anything the East favored. The broadening view brought a new conception of the province of financial operations, and obliterated largely the old idea of isolation. Provincialism passed away, and in its place came a fuller understanding of the nation at large.
Another thing: the Westerner has become better acquainted with national thought. Not only has he traveled himself, but frequent visits to the prairie states of men and women prominent in finance, education, journalism, and philanthropy have brought him in touch with the broader life of older commonwealths. The East is no more a land sufficient unto itself, but is regarded as a section that has many of the same interests as the West. The importance of such a changed point of view is evident in the moderation of language in newspapers and in the public utterances of platform orators. It is no longer the custom to rail against ‘capital’ as a synonym of all that is included in the thrift of generations of dwellers beyond the Mississippi. Here and there is a politician who considers it advantageous, but his public life is short. As the West grows older itself, and sees more plainly the advantages of permanency, it appreciates the settled condition of states that have passed the pioneering period.
Perhaps there is, too, some element of satisfaction that there has come a certain measure of financial and social sufficiency, lessening the dependency characteristic of the days of settlerhood. The equality in ability to do large things and to meet conditions of business is responsible for some of this revised sentiment; it is bringing interrelation where before was an underlying resentment because older states were better equipped. This factor is certain to become more marked as the years go on and the newness passes away from the prairie. With even the smaller towns showing all modern conveniences, — electric lights, paved streets, telephones, handsome public buildings, and parks, — the difference, always felt more keenly than it should have been, vanishes, and there is more contentment with things that the West possesses instead of mere longing for things that it has not.
The average Western community has three principal divisions. There are the ‘first families,’ those who took up the claims or laid out the towns back in the sixties and seventies and who have seen the ups and downs of financial development. The men have lines in their faces; on their cheeks is the sunburn of long days afield; they are yet conscious of the teaching of early days of thrift. They have money in the bank, perhaps mortgages on other farms; they are content for the most part with moderate ways of living. This class, generally speaking, has not acquired great wealth through speculation in land — the most profitable endeavor of the past two decades. It was too timid to plunge, remembering the sad experiences of the settler days.
Then there is the younger generation of the settler families. Many of its members early grew weary of farmlife and developed the towns and cities. Usually they did not obtain college educations; if they did, they will be found in the East, out on the Pacific coast, anywhere on earth where there is business or artistic opportunity.
Last are the later immigrants. These arrived during the past two decades, coming to the interior from the older settled states where land was high. Here land seemed to them cheap, and they invested against the judgment of those who, because of what they had experienced, were afraid to venture. They reaped much of the increase in the prices of real estate, which has more than doubled in value in a decade. A survey of one township three years ago showed that 70 per cent of its residents had come there in the preceding ten years. The early Westerner was restless — he always saw fair fields afar off.
This cosmopolitan population, gathered from many climes and with varying ideas of what is the meaning of life, has been working out its social and economic salvation with nervous energy. Few are poor — in scores of counties there are no almshouses; few are wealthy, but all are eager to accomplish real results in development. Probably it is true that in some directions too much emphasis has been laid on wealth. The newspapers find a better story in swelling bank deposits and in ‘a motor-car for every three families,’ than in reports of community service. But the needs of the newer neighborhoods are not less than in those of older establishment, and these needs can be better met with a plastic population than with one fixed in its habits.
So the inoculation of the West with new ideas for community betterment prospered amazingly. Forward-looking men and women were willing to join in movements that promised results. As an outgrowth of this longing, the average Western town is organized beyond reason. Churches, their number far in excess of the community demand, give earnest pastors a spare living; lodges keep the halls alight six nights a week; commercial clubs discuss iridescent visions of coming factories and industrial opulence; clubs for everything, from bridge to the improvement of the banking system and the promulgation of the rotation of farm crops, flourish. The Westerner is naturally a ‘jiner,’ and his coat-lapel is adorned with the insignia of his fealty to chapter, brotherhood, and clan.
The weakness has been in the failure to finish things. Schemes and plans have been put on paper and allowed to stay there. The newspapers have printed innumerable columns detailing the promises of hopeful promoters and the speeches before the chamber of commerce. Always there was a firm faith that some day prosperity would reign. It was the same spirit that made the settler ever certain that ‘ times will be better in the spring.’
In the working out of his vision the Westerner experimented with legislation, producing weird effects at times, but on the whole tending toward better things. Boards of varied nature, inspectors of everything from the length of hotel bed-sheets to the specific gravity of kerosene, have been appointed. In one little prairie town there were one day last autumn six inspectors, all drawing state salaries and checking up various industries and business houses.
The methods of obtaining legislation are inadequate to modern needs, and legislatures struggle with their mass of suggestions through feverish weeks, resulting in more or less haphazard effects — but the West is not alone in this. On the one side are those who desire, above all else, to keep down taxes; on the other, those who believe that expansion in development calls for liberality in the equipment of its larger factors.
Particularly striking has been the impetuous rush of legislation enacted by Western states dealing with social problems. Going directly to the needs of the everyday citizen, there has been a sincere effort to make society responsible, so far as is feasible, for the conduct of the individual. To be sure, there has been the criticism of interference with ‘personal liberty,’ but the results speak for themselves. The dwellers in the Middle West have a standard of conduct not to be likened to that of the large eastern cities or even to that of the seaboard commonwealths. They have demanded laws that attempt to keep from the public those things which make for evil in thought and deed. The political machinery has been changed to include direct primaries; inquiries into social conditions are being conducted under the control of the state; the supervision of public utilities has gone far; the parole system and indeterminate sentence, with humane treatment of criminals and the abolition of capital punishment, have been factors in an effort to cure wickedness rather than merely to punish. ’Blue-sky’ laws seek to protect the investor; mothers’ pensions and aid for the unfortunate have received attention. In short, there has been in the legislation of these later years a recognition of the brotherhood of man to a degree undreamed of in the period of formative history. Just what the effect of these statutes is to be in lifting the next generation to a higher plane time alone can tell; but whatever the criticism of the outside world, the West believes that it is proceeding in the right direction and that it will gain through its undertakings.
This spirit has been reflected in the changing ideals of education growing out of the larger fields of the universities, where the study of industrial and social service has become a portion of the curriculum. The Western university is not merely a place for the scholar: it is a workshop for the student. Reaching into the intimate life of the community, it is called on to advise regarding the community’s health, to develop natural resources, to be in a large sense a co-laborer in everything that affects complete advancement. Along with the development has gone a readjustment of the high school to meet the demands of the pupil who desires to enter industrial or business life. With the preparation for college go manual training, domestic science, book-keeping, stenography, normal training, agriculture, and sane athletics. As a result, the high-school attendance in some states has doubled in a half-decade, and the most serious problem of many a town is to furnish facilities for the increasing number of young people who welcome the opportunity offered. The coming of the supervised playground, of schoolhouses in use twelve months in the year, of night-schools, and of the larger use of the teaching force, has had its effect in making education a more complete equipment for life, and its effect should be manifest in the next generation. What the people of earlier days missed they are trying to make up to their children.
The democratization of education has been a material factor in the broader outlook on life of the rising generation, and has made it easier for the state to engage in legislation tending toward a greater service to the individual. To be sure, not every new idea has proved sound in practice, and it has been necessary to readjust plans to fit modern needs. Enthusiasts have sometimes attempted too much and have forgotten the individual in the desire for accomplishment; the ultimate effect, however, has been to bring a clearer understanding of the relations of society and to open wider the doors of usefulness.
The towns have made the first step toward simplicity of management, and commission government is coming to be the rule rather than the exception. Even that quickly accepted innovation has not proved all that was desired, and now city managers are succeeding the commissions — slowly, but with gaining popularity. The revision of county and state government will be the next step. Just what form will succeed the present is uncertain, as sentiment has not crystallized; but the eager search for betterment is certain to bring results. That it will be in the direction of centred responsibility, the elimination of useless jobs, and simpler methods in law-making and judicial procedure, is evident. Neither constitutions nor precedent can long restrain action.
This readjustment is indicative of the serious struggle toward a larger democracy, evident in every community, and finding its advocates regardless of partisan politics or social relations. That the West has lost its ideals, is not true. The ideals are not the same as in the pioneer days when problems were broad and their solution depended more on exuberant patriotism than on detailed effort. The problems of today are intimate and enter into the life of the neighborhood. What the West is trying to do is to raise the plane of right living and to develop a healthier and saner generation.
Larger, however, in its importance is the development of community spirit. Where formerly a movement for some measure of helpfulness was supported mostly by the ministers and the schoolteachers, with few personal followers, now it includes the men and women of affairs, united in a sincere effort to accomplish things worth while. Community houses are being erected, some pretentious and fulfilling the needs of the day, others moderate, but giving promise of greater things later. Money and time are forthcoming for these, and the problem of the neglected boy and girl is receiving the attention of busy men and earnest women in city, town, and country.
This tendency is marked in the women’s clubs, now stronger than ever in their history. Where their programmes once were devoted to poetry, literature, and art, they are to-day made up of discussions of matters relating to health, sanitation, government, and community betterment. Some of this change is due to the growth of equal suffrage in the Western states; unquestionably the fact that women in many commonwealths are taking part in the election of every officer is having a definite influence on their interest in government and in the work of public officials. It has, for one thing, called for a higher standard of personal character on the part of public officials. It has been productive of legislation for the child and the overburdened mother. The end is by no means reached in either direction, but the beginning has been made in legislation for reformatory and charitable purposes, and the coming years will see notable progress.
Building a state is no easy task. No matter how patriotic or devoted the leaders, errors and compromises will creep in. This is particularly true of states whose population is composed of former dwellers in forty different commonwealths. The interior states are melting-pots into which enter varied elements and varied inheritances. Grown to independence, the population forms a sturdy force with which to work out the ideals to which it is devoted. In politics the West has always been quick to resent dictation, and frequent upheavals indicate how thorough is the sentiment that the people must be consulted. The enactment of primary laws, limited recall provisions in cities, and other legislation that is believed by the average man and woman to give a greater power to the individual, have brought a changed political atmosphere. But with the reaching of maturity there is no disposition to run amuck or to further laws that are merely the vaporings of uninformed enthusiasts. Extravagances are speedily corrected, and on the whole there is sane and intelligent effort toward sound methods.
No indication is seen to-day that there could be a duplication of that political uprising which swept the West in the nineties. That experience was unique; it was fostered by financial troubles which do not now exist, and, with the outlook for agriculture, are not likely to be repeated. Yet that period was not after all an unmixed evil: it awoke the people to the study of government, and in the end many of the proposals then advocated became matters of course. The evolution of the West has been toward sanity, and with this has gone an acceptance of its real relation to older sections; its more or less volatile public has settled down to the steady progress of existence.
Just how far this reaches into the civic spirit is evidenced in the willingness of town and country to draw on the future for education and public improvement. Millions of dollars in bonds are issued annually, not for the speculative enterprises of early days, but for the establishment of substantial institutions that shall be a heritage for the next generation. The West is in debt, but its debts are incurred for the things that remain. Its farmers — many of them — owe on their farms, but they are using their income for improvements that are changing the landscape from barrenness to a vista of happy homes. The foreclosure of a mortgage is so rare as to attract attention; it is usually for the quieting of title or the settling of an estate. These things, operating for years, have their effect in giving a stronger hold on the individual who is no more a sojourner waiting a chance to ‘cash in’ on his speculation, but an integral part of the community. Because of this, he is a factor of more importance in developing the commonwealth along helpful lines. There is in his life to-day a new idea of what his state means to him, and he is fitted thereby for a larger citizenship.
The element of permanency is entering into the ideals of the Westerner. When real estate was advancing in value, when fortune beckoned in every new territory, when cheap lands promised quick riches, the temptation to move on was strong. But land-values are now stationary, or practically so; the frontier exists only in fiction; homesteading is a lost art. The family has decided that the future years will probably be spent in the locality where beginnings have been made, and has planned to make the surroundings as comfortable as possible. So we see farms improved, bath-tubs in the houses, furnaces and electric lights scattered through rural districts, thousands of farm homes transformed from waiting places to settled domiciles.
The rural population of the West does not increase. In some sections it is actually decreasing, and in nearly all decreasing in comparison with the urban population. Retired farmers are building modest homes in town. If the children will stay on the farm, they keep up the old home; if not, tenants care for the land. It is a growing danger to the rich agricultural states of the interior that this is so. It argues for a tenant class that lessens the high standard of production, for no tenant has the same interest as the owner in the maintenance of the productivity of the land. The man living on his income is usually a conservative, and only as he is awakened to the needs of the community, will he join in expansive plans for betterment. The saving grace is that the Western capitalist is the easiest of all money-owners to convince, He has seen the development of the prairies and is eager for the coming of all the advantages that seem to him good for mankind.
These new ideals, in a broad way, are an attempt to get at the very foundations of life and to build aright thereon. They not only include the community idea, but are concerned with world-affairs. The European war has brought this home. It was not the munition-maker alone who reaped a benefit from the foreign demand for supplies produced here. The farmer sold his wheat, corn, and horses and mules at top figures; the entire price level for his productions advanced, and he came suddenly into a season of rich profits. Yet there was not in the West any change of sympathy with the conflict because of this; and amid a people gaining directly from a continuance of the struggle the peace movements secured a following reached nowhere else in the nation. However, it opened the eyes of the West to its place in the world; the effect was to broaden its view and to impress the essential need of what the soil produces as a factor in the progress of nations. Suddenly it was realized that the Interior exists, not as an appurtenance of the Eastern states, but as an integral factor of the world’s business. The tradesman in the country town felt it; the professional man and the farmer realized it; the banker looked beyond the list of customers on his books and saw his relation to world-finances. It sobered the somewhat self-conscious, extravagantly boasting West of a few years ago and brought maturer views, a more intelligent understanding of itself.
The West has passed the experimental stage. It knows what crops will grow, what trees will thrive, and can estimate what limit is to be placed on its people’s willingness to adopt new ideas. The early settlers gave quick acceptance to every promised panacea, and the promulgator of isms and fads was received as a prophet. Prophets are at a discount to-day. Leaders with sense and integrity are demanded — men and women who temper their theories with hard facts and have a real message. A sort of ‘blue-sky’ law exists in social and political affairs, as in economics. The leader faces a saner and clearer-headed constituency, one less inclined than of old to lose its self-control over the mere sounding of mellifluous phrases. Results are called for, and earnest effort must be backed by sound argument. The demagogue flourished when states were new; he is not extinct yet, but it is becomincreasingly difficult for him to obtain a hearing from those who make up the substantial portion of the community.
Money never exerted so little influence on legislation and position as it does to-day. This is not because there is a high level of per-capita wealth and a minimum of poverty, but because the people have a changed outlook on life and on business. The West knows that it can succeed in material things; it believes that it can succeed as well in other directions. It is feeling its way — with some mistakes and some wanderings, but all the time reaching a higher plane.
When the country readjusts itself after the end of the European war, — granted that we escape other complications in our diplomatic affairs, — there will come the real test of the West’s plans for its own development. It is putting off the vanities of youth and entering on an era of maturity. Its people have enthusiasm, a high standard of courage, and the financial ability to care for their own. They look to a social readjustment that shall lift the entire community to higher levels, to legislative programmes that shall carry with them helpfulness and economic independence. In this are united the everyday men and women of the towns and country districts who are joining hands for the goodness of life.
In two brief decades the West has come to its own. The accomplishment of a century has been crowded into the nervous years. Conscious of hard-won victories by the fathers and mothers who came before, the generation of today takes just pride in a basic wealth that enables it to face the world serene and unafraid. The problems of soilmastery are being solved; the ability to finance its enterprises in a large measure is recognized — but comparative independence is accepted without overconfidence. It realizes as never before the inter-relation of material progress, yet is sure of its position as an equal, and positive in its belief in its own future.
No more the hysterical West of the nineties, no more the offensively boastful West of the early years of this century, it is self-respecting, serious-minded, hopeful, looking to constructive efforts in legislation, in educational advancement, in community welfare. The West of to-day repudiates the charge that it is a worshiper only of the things of the flesh; its outlook is upon the things of the spirit as well — an outlook rich in the inspiration of bright skies and cheery sunshine. The West has emerged, strong-sinewed, from the struggle of settlerhood and the adjustment to modern conditions; it has come face to face with a marvelous vista of possibilities in social and economic development, a new vision of its people’s destiny.