Of Meat and Myth
(The original version of this essay was published in
The Freeman in November 1994. This longer version below was originally published by
Liberty magazine in August 2006 to mark the centennial of the passage of the famed Meat Inspection Act of 1906. A full version, with citations, also appears in the 2011 book A Republic—If We Can Keep It.)
One hundred years ago, a great and enduring myth was born. Muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair wrote a novel entitled The Jungle—a tale of greed and abuse that still reverberates as a case against a free economy. Sinclair’s “jungle” was unregulated enterprise; his example was the meat-packing industry; his purpose was government regulation. The culmination of his work was the passage in 1906 of the Meat Inspection Act, enshrined in history, or at least in history books, as a sacred cow (excuse the pun) of the interventionist state.
A century later, American schoolchildren are still being taught a simplistic and romanticized version of this history. For many young people, The Jungle is required reading in high-school classes, where they are led to believe that unscrupulous capitalists were routinely tainting our meat, and that moral crusader Upton Sinclair rallied the public and forced government to shift from pusillanimous bystander to heroic do-gooder, valiantly disciplining the marketplace to protect its millions of victims.
But this is a triumph of myth over reality, of ulterior motives over good intentions. Reading The Jungle and assuming it’s a credible news source is like watching The Blair Witch Project because you think it’s a documentary.
Given the book’s favorable publicity, it’s not surprising that it has duped a lot of people. Ironically, Sinclair himself, as a founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905, was personally suckered by more than a few intellectual charlatans of his day. One of them was fellow “investigative journalist” Lincoln Steffens, best known for returning from the Soviet Union in 1921 and saying, “I have seen the future, and it works.”
In any event, there is much about The Jungle that Americans just don’t learn from conventional history texts.
The Jungle was, first and foremost, a novel. As is indicated by the fact that the book originally appeared as a serialization in the socialist journal “Appeal to Reason,” it was intended to be a polemic—a diatribe, if you will—not a well-researched and dispassionate documentary. Sinclair relied heavily both on his own imagination and on the hearsay of others. He did not even pretend that he had actually witnessed the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packinghouses, nor to have verified them, nor to have derived them from any official records.
Sinclair hoped the book would ignite a powerful socialist movement on behalf of America’s workers. The public’s attention focused instead on his fewer than a dozen pages of supposed descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing plants. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Though his novelized and sensational accusations prompted congressional investigations of the industry, the investigators themselves expressed skepticism about Sinclair’s integrity and credibility as a source of information. In July 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt stated his opinion of Sinclair in a letter to journalist William Allen White: “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”
Sinclair’s fellow writer and philosophical intimate, Jack London, wrote this announcement of The Jungle, a promo that was approved by Sinclair himself:
Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.
And take notice and remember, comrades, this book is straight proletarian. It is written by an intellectual proletarian, for the proletarian. It is to be published by a proletarian publishing house. It is to be read by the proletariat. What “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did for the black slaves “The Jungle” has a large chance to do for the white slaves of today.
The fictitious characters of Sinclair’s novel tell of men falling into tanks in meat-packing plants and being ground up with animal parts, then made into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.” Historian Stewart H. Holbrook writes, “The grunts, the groans, the agonized squeals of animals being butchered, the rivers of blood, the steaming masses of intestines, the various stenches . . . were displayed along with the corruption of government inspectors” and, of course, the callous greed of the ruthless packers.
Most Americans would be surprised to know that government meat inspection did not begin in 1906. The inspectors Holbrook cites as being mentioned in Sinclair’s book were among hundreds employed by federal, state, and local governments for more than a decade. Indeed, Congressman E. D. Crumpacker of Indiana noted in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee in June 1906 that not even one of those officials “ever registered any complaint or [gave] any public information with respect to the manner of the slaughtering or preparation of meat or food products.”
To Crumpacker and other contemporary skeptics, “Either the Government officials in Chicago [were] woefully derelict in their duty, or the situation over there [had been] outrageously overstated to the country.” If the packing plants were as bad as alleged in The Jungle, surely the government inspectors who never said so must be judged as guilty of neglect as the packers were of abuse.
Some 2 million visitors came to tour the stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago every year. Thousands of people worked in both. Why did it take a novel, written by an anticapitalist ideologue who spent but a few weeks in the city, to unveil the real conditions to the American public?
All the big Chicago packers combined accounted for less than 50% of the meat products produced in the United States, but few if any charges were ever made against the sanitary conditions of the packinghouses of other cities. If the Chicago packers were guilty of anything like the terribly unsanitary conditions suggested by Sinclair, wouldn’t they be foolishly exposing themselves to devastating losses of market share?
In this connection, historians with an ideological axe to grind against the market usually ignore an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry. Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as “willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,” “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.”
Instead, some of these same historians dwell on the Neill-Reynolds Report of the same year because it at least tentatively supported Sinclair. It turns out that neither Neill nor Reynolds had any experience in the meat-packing business and spent a grand total of two and a half weeks in the spring of 1906 investigating and preparing what turned out to be a carelessly written report with predetermined conclusions. Gabriel Kolko, a socialist but nonetheless a historian with a respect for facts, dismisses Sinclair as a propagandist and assails Neill and Reynolds as “two inexperienced Washington bureaucrats who freely admitted they knew nothing” of the meat-packing process. Their own subsequent testimony revealed that they had gone to Chicago with the intention of finding fault with industry practices so as to get a new inspection law passed.
According to the popular myth, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle, and the greedy meat packers fought federal inspection all the way. The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meat packers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it so as to ensnare their smaller, unregulated competitors.
When the sensational accusations of The Jungle became worldwide news, foreign purchases of American meat were cut in half and the meat packers looked for new regulations to give their markets a calming sense of security. The only congressional hearings on what ultimately became the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 were held by Congressman James Wadsworth’s Agriculture Committee between June 6 and 11. A careful reading of the deliberations of the Wadsworth committee and the subsequent floor debate leads inexorably to one conclusion: knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller rivals under controls, and put a newly laundered government seal of approval on their products, the major meat packers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.
In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law, the big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation, as well as new regulations on the competition, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma.
To his credit, Sinclair actually opposed the law because he saw it for what it really was—a boon for the big meat packers. He had been a fool and a sucker who ended up being used by the very industry he hated. But then, there may not have been an industry that he didn’t hate.
Sinclair published more than 90 books before he died (at the age of 90) in 1968—King Coal, Oil!, The Profits of Religion, The Flivver King, Money Writes!, The Moneychangers, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education, The Goslings: A Study of the American Schools, et cetera—but none came anywhere close to the fame of The Jungle. One (Dragon's Teeth), about the Nazi rise to power, earned him a Pulitzer in 1942, but almost all the others were little-noticed and even poorly written class warfare screeds and shabby “exposés” of one industry or another. Many were commercial flops. Friend and fellow writer Sinclair Lewis took Sinclair to task for his numerous errors in a letter written to him in January 1928:
I did not want to say these unpleasant things, but you have written to me, asking my opinion, and I give it to you, flat. If you would get over two ideas — first that anyone who criticizes you is an evil and capitalist-controlled spy, and second that you have only to spend a few weeks on any subject to become a master of it — you might yet regain your now totally lost position as the leader of American socialistic journalism.
On three occasions, Sinclair’s radical socialism led him into electoral politics. Running on the Socialist Party ticket for a congressional seat in New Jersey in 1906, he captured a measly 3% of the vote. He didn’t fare much better as the Socialist candidate for governor of California in 1926. In 1934, however, he secured the nomination of the Democratic Party for the California governorship and shook up the political establishment with a program he called EPIC (“End Poverty in California”). With unemployment in excess of 20% and the state seething in discontent, most Californians still couldn’t stomach Sinclair’s penchant for goofy boondoggles and snake oil promises. Nonetheless, he garnered a very respectable 38% against the incumbent Republican Frank Merriman.
The EPIC platform is worth a mention, if only to underscore Sinclair’s lifelong, unshakeable fascination with crackpot central-planning contrivances. It called for a massive tax increase on corporations and utilities, huge public employment programs (he wanted to put the unemployed to work on farms seized by the state for failure to pay taxes), and the issuance of money-like “scrip” based on goods produced by state-employed workers. He thought the Depression was probably a permanent affliction of capitalism and seemed utterly unaware of the endless state interventions that had brought it on in the first place (see my “Great Myths of the Great Depression
Was Upton Sinclair a nincompoop? You decide. This much is clear: early in the 20th century, he cooked up a work of fiction as a device to help in his agitation for an economic system (socialism) that doesn’t work and that was already known not to work. For the next six decades he learned little if anything about economics, but he never relented in his support for discredited schemes to put big government in charge of other people’s lives.
Myths survive their makers. What you’ve just read about Sinclair and his myth is not at all “politically correct.” But defending the market from historical attack begins with explaining what really happened in our history. Those who persist in the shallow claim that The Jungle stands as a compelling indictment of the market should take a look at the history surrounding this honored novel. Upon inspection, there seems to be an unpleasant odor hovering over it.