The Man Who Smelled the Future
NOVEMBER 01, 1960 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Mr. Chamberlain, noted critic, journalist, and editor, regularly presents "A Reviewer’s Notebook" in THE FREEMAN. Among recent works is his exciting analysis of The Roots of Capitalism (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1959).
No, the Forgotten Man was the C in what was shortly to become a famous social equation—the sacrificial goat whom A and B (the professional do-gooders and their allied politicians) forcibly levied upon to support D, the chronic ne’er-do-well. The vice of such a formula, so Sumner informed his
Warming to his subject—and thinking, no doubt, of his own strongly independent father, Thomas Sumner, whom he was to describe at a later date as belonging to "the class of men of whom Caleb Garth in Middlemarch is the type"—the Yale professor remarked that the Forgotten Man was "not in any way a hero (like a popular orator); or a problem (like tramps or outcasts); nor notorious (like criminals); nor an object of sentiment (like the poor and weak); nor a burden (like paupers and loafers); nor an object out of which social capital may be made (like the beneficiaries of church and state charities); nor an object for charitable aid and protection (like animals treated with cruelty); nor the object of a job (like the ignorant and illiterate); nor one over whom sentimental economists and statesmen can parade their fine sentiments (like inefficient workmen and shiftless artisans)." No, the Forgotten Man was none of these things. He worked and voted, and—generally—he prayed. But, said Sumner, he always paid. "All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for it is time"—so the professor added—"to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman."
The Young Crusader
The Sumner who took up the cudgels in 1883 for the steady, uncomplaining, abstemious C spoke as a fire-breathing crusader yearning to right a grievous wrong. One can see this Billy Sumner as he was in the early eighteen eighties, a tall, vigorous, somewhat harsh man of 43 given to a fastidious disdain and a limp handshake which warned people he was no backslapper. His imposing brow was already "magnificently bald," his greenish eyes were sharp and piercing, his clothes immaculate, even a trifle foppish. An enemy of his views on the tariff has left an unforgettable impression of his "iron" voice: it "shot out like a charge from a gun, combining a growl with its roar, and ending the sentence with a peculiar snarl from the throat, as if he would rivet his statement in your mind past all removal or dissent." Then there was "a strong nose which, from its commanding central position in his face, constantly took part, as if swiveled for the purpose, in an extraordinary series of smirks and grimaces, some vicious, some sardonic—all mischievous and threatening."
Threatening or not, the professor’s undergraduate students at Yale loved both voice and grimaces: Billy Sumner in the eighties, not yet the remote and ghostly figure he was to become when he deserted economics and political science to pursue the folkways and the mores to their points of origin, was invariably voted the most effective teacher on the faculty.
No Record of Dissent
The audience that listened to Sumner on that January night of 1883 has left no record of dissent from his idea that C—the Forgotten Man who always Paid—actually existed. Moreover, when Sumner later in the year expanded his thesis about the "jobbery" practised on C in a little classic of social science called What Social Classes Owe to Each Other,* no one rose to challenge the feeling that Sumner had put his finger on a most important problem.
This, at our particular vantage point which looks back on the eighties as individualistic in the extreme, must seem something of an oddity. Indeed, it is even astounding. For consider what the world was in the placid days of 1883. Of special relevance to Sumner’s speech, it was a world without the graduated, or "progressive," income tax. In fact, there had been no income tax at all since the purely temporary—and unconstitutional—one that had helped pay for the Civil War. True, there had been public monies and lands dispensed to railroads, and there was the ever-present tariff. But the
The politician in the eighties, in fact, had not yet figured out a way of getting more than a pittance out of the Forgotten Man. Though religion, in a decade that had begun to digest Darwinism, was a softer, weaker thing than it had been in previous generations, the tithes still taken by the churches as purely voluntary offerings must have far exceeded the "welfarist" collections of government. A poor immigrant in the eighties—a Carnegie, say, or a Jacob Schiff—could keep his money and die a millionaire. The Forgotten Man in the eighties may have been forgotten—but it was hardly the "radical vice" of the political schemes cooked up for hiss spoliation by philanthropists looking to spend Other People’s Money that really hurt him. If the Forgotten Man "always paid," it was because he couldn’t resist an appeal to his better nature to give voluntarily. If he was broke, it was not because the State mulcted him. It was because he believed in Sumner’s own Law of Sympathy.
A Time of Hopefulness
The salient fact about the early eighties, as the Forgotten Man himself looked upon them, was their atmosphere of general hopefulness. Though strikes were worrisome in a world that was just beginning its adventure in industrialism, the depression of the seventies, which had been particularly bad in the new railroad towns, had long since yielded to the new business optimism. The railroads were running again without interruption, trainmen’s wages had been restored, and the bigconsolidation of the lines into interstate systems was under way. Meanwhile, as the cyclical upswing was on, the western roads were laying thousands of miles of new track. Immigrants from northern Europe and, latterly, from Hungary and Italy and Poland, had been passing through Castle Garden at the port of New York by the thousands, and despite the fears of Terence Powderly’s Knights of Labor, the railroads and steel mills and mines had absorbed them without any great disaster to the jobs of the native-born. As an editor of the American Iron and Steel Bulletin noted in 1883, the overloading of the labor market, where it existed in the coal-mining and iron-ore mining districts, was not due to depression. It was due to "the very prosperity of our country, which tempts large numbers of foreigners to come here."
On the farm border of the early eighties the bad times of the "Granger years" had lifted. Crops were moving to market at a profit to both the farmer and the railroads. Land could still be had for the asking (and for nominal registration fees) in the West, and for as little as $1,000 in borrowed capital a young man could put up a shelter and buy horses, wagon, harness, plows, seeds, and enough of the new Glidden barbed wire to get a start on his 160 free acres. Though historians, accepting the Populist charges of the nineties at face value, have argued the "grasping" nature of eastern money-lenders, the fact is that money rates on the
Money for the western farmer did not come primarily from a greedy "Wall Street" in any event; it was assembled for loan purposes by the insurance companies and by land mortgage companies which were organized everywhere from New Hampshire to Kansas to tap the funds of individuals or families with capital to spare. Not wishing to be saddled with real estate, these companies did their best to keep the farmer in business. In many instances the record of forebearance on the part of the lender was very good indeed; as John Davenport, a
Discounting the menace of the drought-cycle, which was not yetunderstood in the early eighties, the fact that a farmer could get his start as his "own man" for a thousand dollars in easily borrowed money made it impossible for anyone to claim with a straight face that the pioneer was oppressed by a greedy East. He took his chances like everybody else—and often he sold his acres on a rising market to go elsewhere as opportunity beckoned all the way to the
No "Big Business" Bogey
In common with most of our recent historians, Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager have shed crocodile tears over the fact that it took two bushels of wheat to "buy" a dollar in 1890 where that same dollar could have been bought with one bushel in 1870. But these historians are forced to note elsewhere—and without any tears—that when four men on a farm can do the work of three hundred by using a combine, and when a mechanical corn husker "replaces eight men with one, [and] the corn sheller fifty," prices for farm products could hardly remain unaffected.
There remains the theory that the new "trusts" of the eighties bore down heavily on the Forgotten Man. But when Sumner was making his speech in
In his own less gloomy moods Sumner himself forgot his worries about the Forgotten Man. Some twenty years after his speech in
If one looks back upon the
The streets that ran past the old town pump and past Yale’s Old Brick Row were still muddy canals in late March and early April, necessitating iron foot scrapers on every doorstep; but down the middle of
Townsend, a local banker, sent out Colonel Edwin Drake, a railroad conductor with newfangled ideas about drilling, to sink the world’s first oil well.
The first Eli Whitney had taken much encouragement from Ezra Stiles. He had failed to make a fortune from his cotton gin, which, despite his patent, had been pirated all over the South by local manufacturers. But Whitney had recouped by pioneering the production of interchangeable rifle parts from standardized dies out in his factory by Lake Whitney—and this more than anything else had set the pattern for the town Sumner knew.
It was a town of many "firsts" besides that of the first geography book and the first standardized dies. In little things there were Sheldon Hartshorn’s first hinged buckle and William Gee’s loom for weaving suspender webbing, two products dating back to the time of Sumner’s childhood; and, going further back to the days of the early clockmakers, there was the inventiveness of Simeon Jocelyn, who had desisted from his business of engraving grandfather clock faces long enough to create the first practical pruning shears. Amasa Goodyear, father of the man who was to discover rubber vulcanization, had brought into being the spring steel tine pitchfork, a famous
Edward Beecher’s and Thomas Sandford’s New Haven-made device for mass-producing the phosphorous match. And the new railroads of the young
Even as Sumner was lamenting the sad fate of the Forgotten Man, New Haveners were pioneering some of the first commercial companies to match the creativity of the inventors. The first telephone directory in history, giving numbers for all of fifty subscribers, had been issued in 1878 by the District Telephone Co. of New Haven, which had set up the first commercial switchboard on a borrowed kitchen table. In 1881—two years after Thomas Edison had made an incandescent bulb that would burn for practically all of two days—New Haveners had started the New Haven Electric Light Co., the first after
In addition to the newer ventures there were the old standbys which had made New Haven the industrial center of southern
A Profound Prophecy
How are we to account for Sumner’s pessimism amid the evidence that the Common Man, far from being "forgotten," was blessed with hope and opportunity in that New Haven clime of 1883 as he had never been blessed before? Was it merely that Sumner, who was to become
Quite aside from the academic influence there were other trends which had aroused Sumner’s suspicions. The tariff, that first monument to American statism, was already an old story in 1883; and the tariff, as Sumner foresaw, would be a goad to every pressure group to get "its own." The Greenbackers and Grangers were comparatively quiescent in the early eighties; but it was not for nothing that Sumner had been a long-time student of the American currency, which had periodically run to wildcat issues and to the effects of an oversanguine theory that silver could arbitrarily be held in a fixed relation to gold. Then there was the latent penchant of the American for a collectivist utopianism—the old Fourier and Brook Farm strain which would erupt anew into the Bellamy clubs in the wake of Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Meanwhile Henry George had already gathered his first army of Single Tax prophets—and Sumner suspected that any widespread application of George’s principles would put the disposal of natural resources into the hands of tax apportioning politicians, who have never been solicitous of the needs of the enterpriser in any clime or time.
It is as a prophetic utterance, then, that we must take Sumner’s speech on the Forgotten Man in its own original setting. False though it was to the immediate circumstances of