THE CONTEMPORARY SITUATION AND ITS PROBLEMSIt is important to recognize that the anti-slavery agitation, the secession of the South, and the Civil War were, after all, only an episode in the course of American national development. The episode was desperately serious. Like the acute illness of a strong man, it almost killed its victim; and the crisis exposed certain weaknesses in our political organism, in the absence of which the illness would never have become acute. But the roots of our national vitality were apparently untouched by the disease. When the crisis was over, the country resumed with astonishing celerity the interrupted process of economic expansion. The germs of a severe disease, to which the Fathers of the Republic had given a place in the national Constitution, and which had been allowed to flourish, because of the lack of wholesome cohesion in the body politic—this alien growth had been cut out by a drastic surgical operation, and the robust patient soon recovered something like his normal health. Indeed, being in his own opinion even more robust than he was before the crisis, he was more eager than ever to convert his good health into the gold of satisfied desire. The ghost of slavery had been banished from our national banquet: and, relieved of this terror, the American people began to show, more aggressively than ever before, their ability to provide and to consume a bountiful feast. They were no longer children, grasping at the first fruits of a half-cultivated wilderness. They were adults, beginning to plan the satisfaction of on appetite which had been sharpened by self-denial, and made self-conscious by maturity.
The North, after the war was over, did not have much time for serious reflection upon its meaning and consequences. The Republican leaders did just enough thinking to carry them through the crisis; but once the rebellion was suppressed and the South partly de-nationalized in the name of reconstruction, the need and desire was for action rather than for thought. The anti-slavery agitation and the war had interrupted the process, which from the public point of view, was described as the economic development of the country, and which from an individual standpoint meant the making of money. For many years Americans had been unable, because of the ghost of slavery, to take full advantage of their liberties and opportunities; and now that the specter was exorcised, they gladly put aside any anxious political preoccupations. Politics could be left to the politicians. It was about time to get down to business. In this happiest of all countries, and under this best of all governments, which had been preserved at such an awful cost, the good American was entitled to give his undivided attention to the great work of molding and equipping the continent for human habitation, and incidentally to the minor task of securing his share of the rewards. A lively, even a frenzied, outburst of industrial, commercial, and speculative activity followed hard upon the restoration of peace. This activity and its effects have been the most important fact in American life during the forty years which have supervened; and it has assumed very different characteristics from those which it had assumed previous to the War. We must now consider the circumstances, the consequences, and the meaning of this economic revolution.
Although nobody in 1870 suspected it, the United States was entering upon a new phase of its economic career; and the new economy was bringing with it radical social changes. Even before the outbreak of the Civil War the rich and fertile states of the Middle West had become well populated. They had passed from an almost exclusively agricultural economy to one which was much more largely urban and industrial. The farms had become well-equipped; large cities were being built up; factories of various kinds were being established; and most important of all, the whole industrial organization of the country was being adjusted to transportation by means of the railroad. An industrial community, which was, comparatively speaking, well-organized and well-furnished with machinery, was taking the place of the agricultural community of 1830-1840, which was incoherent and scattered and which lacked everything except energy and opportunity. Such an increase of organization, capital, and equipment necessarily modified the outlook and interests of the people of the Middle West. While still retaining many of their local traits, their point of view had been approaching in certain respects that of the inhabitants of the East. They had ceased to be pioneers.
During the two decades after the Civil War, the territory, which was still in the early stage of agricultural development, was the first and second tier of states west of the Mississippi River. Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, and finally the Dakotas were being opened for settlement; but in their case the effect and symptoms of this condition were not the same as they had been with the earlier pioneer states. Their economy was from the beginning adjusted to the railroad; and the railroad had made an essential difference. It worked in favor of a more comprehensive and definite organization and a more complete equipment. While the business interests of the new states were and still are predominantly agricultural, the railroads had transformed the occupation of farming. After 1870, the pioneer farmer was much less dependent than he had been upon local conditions and markets, and upon the unaided exertions of himself and his neighbors. He bought and sold in the markets of the world. He needed more capital and more machinery. He had to borrow money and make shrewd business calculations. From every standpoint his economic environment had become more complicated and more extended, and his success depended much more upon conditions which were beyond his control. He never was a pioneer in the sense that the early inhabitants of the Middle West and South had been pioneers; and he has never exercised any corresponding influence upon the American national temper. The pioneer had enjoyed his day, and his day was over. The Jack-of-all-trades no longer possessed an important economic function. The average farmer was, of course, still obliged to be many kinds of a rough mechanic, but for the most part he was nothing more than a farmer. Unskilled labor began to mean labor which was insignificant and badly paid. Industrial economy demanded the expert with his high and special standards of achievement. The railroads and factories could not be financed and operated without the assistance of well-paid and well-trained men, who could do one or two things remarkably well, and who did not pretend to do much of anything else. These men had to retain great flexibility and an easy adaptability of intelligence, because American industry and commerce remained very quick in its movements. The machinery which they handled was less permanent, and was intended to be less permanent than the machinery which was considered economical in Europe. But although they had to avoid routine and business rigidity on the penalty of utter failure, still they belonged essentially to a class of experts. Like all experts, they had to depend, not upon mere energy, untutored enthusiasm, and good-will, but upon careful training and single-minded devotion to a special task, and at the same time proper provision had to be made for coördinating the results of this highly specialized work. More complete organization necessarily accompanied specialization. The expert became a part of a great industrial machine. His individuality tended to disappear in his work. His interests became those of a group. Imperative economic necessities began to classify the individuals composing American society in the same way, if not to the same extent, that they had been classified in Europe.
This was a result which had never entered into the calculations of the pioneer Democrat. He had disliked specialization, because, as he thought, it narrowed and impoverished the individual; and he distrusted permanent and official forms of organization, because, as he thought, they hampered the individual. His whole political, social, and economic outlook embodied a society of energetic, optimistic, and prosperous democrats, united by much the same interests, occupations, and point of view. Each of these democrats was to be essentially an all-round man. His conception of all-round manhood was somewhat limited; but it meant at least a person who was expansive in feeling, who was enough of a business man successfully to pursue his own interests, and enough of a politician to prevent any infringement or perversion of his rights. He never doubted that the desired combination of business man, politician, and good fellow constituted an excellent ideal of democratic individuality, that it was sufficiently realized in the average Western American of the Jacksonian epoch, that it would continue to be the type of admirable manhood, and that the good democrats embodying this type would continue to merit and to obtain substantial and approximately equal pecuniary rewards. Moreover, for a long time the vision remained sufficiently true. The typical American democrat described by De Tocqueville corresponded very well with the vision of the pioneer; and he did not disappear during the succeeding generation. For many years millions of Americans of much the same pattern were rewarded for their democratic virtue in an approximately similar manner. Of course some people were poor, and some people were rich; but there was no class of the very rich, and the poverty of the poor was generally their own fault. Opportunity knocked at the door of every man, and the poor man of to-day was the prosperous householder of to-morrow. For a long time American social and economic conditions were not merely fluid, but consistent and homogeneous, and the vision of the pioneer was fulfilled. Nevertheless, this condition was essentially transient. It contained within itself the seeds of its own dissolution and transformation; and this transformation made headway just as soon as, and just as far as, economic conditions began to prefer the man who was capable of specializing his work, and of organizing it with the work of his fellows.
The dominant note, consequently, of the pioneer period was an unformed national consistency, reached by means of a natural community of feeling and a general similarity of occupation and well-being. On the other hand, the dominant note of the period from 1870 until the present day has been the gradual disintegration of this early national consistency, brought about by economic forces making for specialization and organization in all practical affairs, for social classification, and finally for greater individual distinction. Moreover, the tendency towards specialization first began to undermine the very corner-stone of the pioneer's democratic edifice. If private interest and public weal were to be as harmonious as the pioneer assumed, every economic producer must be a practical politician, and there must be no deep-lying division between these primary activities. But the very first result of the specializing tendency was to send the man of business, the politician, and the lawyer off on separate tacks. Business interests became so absorbing that they demanded all of a man's time and energy; and he was obliged to neglect politics except in so far as politics affected business. In this same way, the successful lawyers after the War were less apt than formerly to become politicians and statesmen. They left public affairs largely to the unsuccessful lawyers. Politics itself became an occupation which made very exacting demands upon a man's time and upon his conscience. Public service or military success were no longer the best roads to public distinction. Men became renowned and distinguished quite as much, if not more, for achievements in their private and special occupations. Along with leadership of statesmen and generals, the American people began to recognize that of financiers, "captains of industry," corporation lawyers, political and labor "bosses," and these gentlemen assumed extremely important parts in the direction of American affairs. Officially, the new leaders were just like any other American citizen. No titles could be conferred upon them, and their position brought with it no necessary public responsibilities. Actually, however, they exercised in many cases more influence upon American social and political economy than did the official leaders. They were an intrusion, into the traditional economic political and social system, for which no provision had been made. Their special interests, and the necessities of their special tasks, made their manner of life different from that of other American citizens, and their peculiar opportunities enabled them to appropriate an unusually large share of the fruits of American economic development. Thus they seriously impaired the social and economic homogeneity, which the pioneer believed to be the essential quality of fruitful Americanism.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE BUSINESS SPECIALISTBefore seeking to trace the consequences and the significance of this specialized organization of American practical affairs, we must examine its origin with some care. An exact and complete understanding thereof will in itself afford an unmistakable hint of the way in which its consequences are to be appraised, and wherever necessary, corrected. The great and increasing influence of the new unofficial leaders has been due not only to economic conditions and to individual initiative, but to the nature of our political ideas and institutions. The traditional American theory was that the individual should have a free hand. In so far as he was subject to public regulation and control such control should be exercised by local authorities, whereof the result would be a happy combination of individual prosperity and public weal. But this expectation, as we have seen, has proved to be erroneous. While it has, indeed, resulted in individual prosperity, the individual who has reaped most of the prosperity is not the average, but the special man; and however the public may have benefited from the process, the benefit is mixed with so many drawbacks that, even if it may not be wholly condemned, it certainly cannot be wholly approved. The plain fact is that the individual in freely and energetically pursuing his own private purposes has not been the inevitable public benefactor assumed by the traditional American interpretation of democracy. No doubt he has incidentally accomplished, in the pursuit of his own aggrandizement, certain manifest public benefits; but wherever public and private advantages have conflicted, he has naturally preferred the latter. And under our traditional political system there was, until recently, no effective way of correcting his preference.
As long as the economic opportunities of American life consisted chiefly in the appropriation and improvement of uncultivated land, the average energetic man had no difficulty in obtaining his fair share of the increasing American economic product; but the time came when such opportunities, although still important, were dwarfed by other opportunities, incident to the development of a more mature economic system. These opportunities, which were, of course, connected with the manufacturing, industrial, and technical development of the country, demanded under American conditions a very special type of man—the man who would bring to his task not merely energy, but unscrupulous devotion, originality, daring, and in the course of time a large fund of instructive experience. The early American industrial conditions differed from those of Europe in that they were fluid, and as a result of this instability, extremely precarious. Rapid changes in markets, business methods, and industrial machinery made it very difficult to build up a safe business. A manufacturer or a merchant could not secure his business salvation, as in Europe, merely by the adoption of sound conservative methods. The American business man had greater opportunities and a freer hand than his European prototype; but he was also beset by more severe, more unscrupulous, and more dangerous competition. The industrious and thrifty farmer could be tolerably sure of a modest competence, due partly to his own efforts, and partly to the increased value of his land in a more populous community; but the business man had no such security. In his case it was war to the knife. He was presented with a choice between aggressive daring business operations, and financial insignificance or ruin.
No doubt this situation was due as much to the temper of the American business man as to his economic environment. American energy had been consecrated to economic development. The business man in seeking to realize his ambitions and purposes was checked neither by government control nor social custom. He had nothing to do and nothing to consider except his own business advancement and success. He was eager, strenuous, and impatient. He liked the excitement and the risk of large operations. The capital at his command was generally too small for the safe and conservative conduct of his business; and he was consequently obliged to be adventurous, or else to be left behind in the race. He might well be earning enormous profits one year and skirting bankruptcy the next. Under such a stress conservatism and caution were suicidal. It was the instinct of self-preservation, as well as the spirit of business adventure, which kept him constantly seeking for larger markets, improved methods, or for some peculiar means of getting ahead of his competitors. He had no fortress behind which he could hide and enjoy his conquests. Surrounded as he was by aggressive enemies and undefended frontiers, his best means of security lay in a policy of constant innovation and expansion. Moreover, even after he had obtained the bulwark of sufficient capital and more settled industrial surroundings, he was under no temptation to quit and enjoy the spoils of his conquests. The social, intellectual, or even the more vulgar pleasures, afforded by leisure and wealth, could bring him no thrill, which was anything like as intense as that derived from the exercise of his business ability and power. He could not conquer except by virtue of a strong, tenacious, adventurous, and unscrupulous will; and after he had conquered, this will had him in complete possession. He had nothing to do but to play the game to the end—even though his additional profits were of no living use to him.
If, however, the fluid and fluctuating nature of American economic conditions and the fierceness of American competitive methods turned business into a state of dangerous and aggressive warfare, the steady and enormous expansion of the American markets made the rewards of victory correspondingly great. Not only was the population of the country increasing at an enormous rate, but the demand for certain necessary products, services, and commodities was increasing at a higher rate than the population. The American people were still a most homogeneous collection of human beings. They wanted very much the same things; they wanted more of these things year after year; and they immediately rewarded any cheapening of the product by buying it in much larger quantities. The great business opportunities of American life consisted, consequently, in supplying some popular or necessary article or service at a cheaper price than that at which any one else could furnish it; and the great effort of American business men was, of course, to obtain some advantage over their competitors in producing such an article or in supplying such a service. The best result of this condition was a constant improvement in the mechanism of production. Cheapness was found to depend largely upon the efficient use of machinery, and the efficient use of machinery was found to depend upon constant wear and quick replacement by a better machine. But while the economic advantage of the exhausting use and the constant improvement of machinery was the most important economic discovery of the American business man, he was also encouraged by his surroundings to seek economies in other and less legitimate ways. It was all very well to multiply machines and make them more efficient, but similar improvements were open to competitors. The great object was to obtain some advantage which was denied to your competitors. Then the business man could not only secure his own position, but utterly rout and annihilate his adversaries.
At this point the railroads came to the assistance of the aggressive and unscrupulous business man. They gave such men an advantage over their competitors by granting them special rates; and inasmuch as this practice has played a decisive part in American business development, its effect and its meaning, frequently as they have been pointed out, must be carefully traced.
The railroads themselves are, perhaps, the most perfect illustration of the profits which accrue in a rapidly growing country from the possession of certain advantages in supplying to the public an indispensable service. They were not built, as in most European states, under national supervision and regulation, or according to a general plan which prevented unnecessary competition. Their routes and their methods were due almost entirely to private enterprise and to local economic necessities. They originated in local lines radiating from large cities; and only very slowly did their organization come to correspond with the great national routes of trade. The process of building up the leading systems was in the beginning a process of combining the local roads into important trunk lines. Such combinations were enormously profitable, because the business of the consolidated roads increased in a much larger proportion than did the cost of financing end operating the larger mileage; and after the combinations were made the owners of the consolidated road were precisely in the position of men who had obtained a certain strategic advantage in supplying a necessary service to their fellow-countrymen. Their terminals, rights of way, and machinery could not be duplicated except at an increased cost, and their owners were in a position necessarily to benefit from the growth of the country in industry and population. No doubt their economic position was in certain respects precarious. They did not escape the necessity, to which other American business enterprises had to submit, of fighting for a sufficient share of the spoils. But in making the fight, they had acquired certain advantages which, if they were intelligently used, would necessarily result in victory; and as we all know, these advantages have proved to be sufficient. The railroads have been the greatest single source of large American fortunes, and the men who control the large railroad systems are the most powerful and conspicuous American industrial leaders.
Important, however, as has been the direct effect of big railroad systems on the industrial economy of the country, their indirect effects have probably been even more important. In one way or another, they have been the most effective of all agencies working for the larger organization of American industries. Probably such an organization was bound to have come in any event, because the standard economic needs of millions of thrifty democrats could in the long run be most cheaply satisfied by means of well-situated and fully equipped industrial plants of the largest size; but the railroad both hastened this result and determined its peculiar character. The population of the United States is so scattered, its distances so huge, and its variations in topographical level so great, that its industries would necessarily have remained very local in character, as long as its system of transportation depended chiefly upon waterways and highways. Some kind of quick transportation across country was, consequently, an indispensable condition of the national organization of American industry and commerce. The railroad not only supplied this need, but coming as it did pretty much at the beginning of our industrial development, it largely modified and determined the character thereof. By considerably increasing the area within which the products of any one locality could be profitably sold, it worked naturally in favor of the concentration of a few large factories in peculiarly favorable locations; and this natural process was accelerated by the policy which the larger companies adopted in the making of their rates. The rapid growth of big producing establishments was forced, because of the rebates granted to them by the railroads. Without such rebates the large manufacturing corporation controlled by a few individuals might still have come into existence; but these individuals would have been neither as powerful as they now are, nor as opulent, nor as much subject to suspicion.
It is peculiarly desirable to understand, consequently, just how these rebates came to be granted. It was, apparently, contrary to the interest of the railroad companies to cut their rates for the benefit of any one class of customers; and it was, also, an illegal practice, which had to be carried on by secret and underhand methods. Almost all the state laws under which corporations engaged in transportation had been organized, had defined railways, like highways, as public necessities. Such corporations had usually been granted by the states the power to condemn land,—and the delegation of such a power to a private company meant, of course, that it owed certain responsibilities to the public as a common carrier, among which the responsibility of not allowing special privileges to any one customer was manifestly to be included. When the railroad managers have been asked why they cut their published rates and evaded the laws, they have always contended that they were forced to do so; and whatever may be thought of the plea, it cannot be lightly set aside. As we have seen, the trunk lines leading from Chicago to the coast were the result of the consolidation of local roads. After the consolidations had taken place, these companies began to compete fiercely for through freight, and the rebates were an incident in this competition. The trunk lines in the early years of their existence were in the position of many other American business enterprises. For the time being, they were more than competent to carry all the freight offered at competitive points. Inasmuch as there was not enough to go around, they fought mercilessly for what business there was. When a large individual shipper was prepared to guarantee them a certain amount of freight in return for special rates, they were obliged either to grant the rates or to lose the business. Of course they submitted, and defended their submission as a measure of self-preservation.
No great intelligence is required to detect in this situation the evidence of a vicious circle. The absorption of Americans in business affairs, and the free hand which the structure and ideals of American life granted them, had made business competition a fierce and merciless affair; while at the same time the fluid nature of American economic conditions made success very precarious. Every shrewd and resolute man would seek to secure himself against the dangers of this situation by means of special advantages, and the most effective of all special advantages would, of course, be special railroad rates. But a shipper such as John D. Rockefeller could obtain special rates only because the railroads were in a position similar to his own, and were fighting strenuously for supremacy. The favored shipper and the railroad both excused themselves on the ground of self-preservation, and sometimes even claimed that it was just for a large shipper to obtain better rates than a small one. This was all very well for the larger shipper and the railroad, but in the meantime what became of the small shipper, whom Mr. Rockefeller was enabled to annihilate by means of his contracts with the railroad companies? The small shipper saw himself forced out of business, because corporations to whom the state had granted special privileges as common carriers, had a private interest in doing business with his bigger, more daring, and unscrupulous competitors.
Of course no such result could have happened, if at any point in this vicious circle of private interests, there had been asserted a dominant public interest; and there are several points at which such an interest might well have been intruded. The circle would have been broken, if, for instance, the granting of illegal rebates had been effectively prohibited; but as a matter of fact they could not be effectively prohibited by the public authorities, to whom either the railroads or the large shippers were technically responsible. A shipper of oil in Cleveland, Ohio, would have a difficult time in protesting against illegal discrimination on the part of a railroad conducting an inter-state business and organized under the laws of New York. No doubt he could appeal to the Federal government; but the Federal government had been, for the time being, disqualified by many different causes from effective interference. In the first place there was to be overcome the conventional democratic prejudice against what was called centralization. A tradition of local control over the machinery of transit and transportation was dominant during the early period of railroad construction. The fact that railways would finally become the all-important vehicles of inter-state commerce was either overlooked or considered unimportant. The general government did not interfere—except when, as in the case of the Pacific lines, its interference and assistance were solicited by private interests. For a long time the idea that the Federal government had any general responsibility in respect to the national transportation system was devoid of practical consequences.
In the end an Inter-state Commerce law was passed, in which the presence of a national interest in respect to the American system of transportation was recognized. But this law, like our tariff laws, was framed for the benefit chiefly of a combination of local and special interests; and it served little to advance any genuine national interest in relation to the railroads. To be sure it did forbid rebates, but the machinery for enforcing the prohibition was inefficient, and during another twenty years the prohibition remained substantially a dead letter. The provisions of the law forbidding rebates were in truth merely a bit of legal hypocrisy. Rebates could not be openly defended; but the business of the country was honeycombed with them, and the majority of the shippers in whose interest the law was passed did not want the prohibition enforced. Their influence at Washington was sufficiently powerful to prevent the adoption of any effective measures for the abatement of the evil. The Federal Inter-state Commerce Commission, unlike the local authorities, would have been fully competent to abolish rebates; but the plain truth was that the effective public opinion in the business world either supported the evil or connived at it. The private interests at stake were, for the time being, too strong for the public interest. The whole American business tradition was opposed to government interference with prevailing business practices; and in view of this fact the responsibility for the rebates cannot be fixed merely upon the railroads and the trusts. The American system had licensed energetic and unscrupulous individual aggrandizement as the best means of securing a public benefit; and rebates were merely a flagrant instance of the extent to which public opinion permitted the domination of private interests.
The failure of the Federal government to protect the public interest in a matter over which the state governments had no effective control, has greatly accelerated the organization of American industries on a national scale, but for private and special purposes. Certain individuals controlling certain corporations were enabled to obtain a decided advantage in supplying certain services and products to the enormously increasing American market; and once those individuals and corporations had obtained dominant positions, it was in their interest to strengthen one another's hands in every possible way. One big corporation has as a rule preferred to do business with another big corporation. They were all of them producing some standard commodity or service, and it is part of the economical conduct of such businesses to buy and sell so far as possible in large quantities and under long contracts. Such contracts reduced to a comparatively low level the necessary uncertainties of business. It enabled the managers of these corporations to count upon a certain market for their product or a certain cost for part of their raw material; and it must be remembered that the chief object of this whole work of industrial organization was to diminish the hazards of unregulated competition and to subject large business operations to effective control. A conspicuous instance of the effect of such interests and motives may be seen in the lease of the ore lands belonging to the Great Northern Railroad to the United States Steel Corporation. The railroad company owned the largest body of good ore in the country outside of the control of the Steel Corporation, and if these lands had been leased to many small companies, the ability of the independent steel manufacturers to compete with the big steel company would have been very much increased. But the Great Northern Railroad Company found it simpler and more secure to do business with one large than a number of small companies; and in this way the Steel Corporation has obtained almost a monopoly of the raw material most necessary to the production of finished steel. It will be understood, consequently, how inevitably these big corporations strengthen one another's hands; and it must be added that they had political as well as economic motives for so doing. Although the big fellows sometimes indulge in the luxury of fierce fighting, such fights are always the prelude to still closer agreements. They are all embarked in the same boat; and surrounded as they are by an increasing amount of enmity, provoked by their aggrandizement, they have every reason to lend one another constant and effective support.
There may be discerned in this peculiar organization of American industry an entangling alliance between a wholesome and a baleful tendency. The purpose which prompted men like John D. Rockefeller to escape from the savage warfare in which so many American business men were engaged, was in itself a justifiable and ameliorating purpose. Competition in American business was insufficiently moderated either by the state or by the prevailing temper of American life. No sensible and resourceful man will submit to such a precarious existence without making some attempt to escape from it; and if the means which Mr. Rockefeller and others took to secure themselves served to make the business lives of their competitors still more precarious, such a result was only the expiation which American business men were obliged to pay for their own excesses. The concentrated leadership, the partial control, the thorough organization thereby effected, was not necessarily a bad thing. It was in some respects a decidedly good thing, because leadership of any kind has certain intrinsic advantages. The trusts have certainly succeeded in reducing the amount of waste which was necessitated by the earlier condition of wholly unregulated competition. The competitive methods of nature have been, and still are, within limits indispensable; but the whole effort of civilization has been to reduce the area within which they are desirably effective; and it is entirely possible that in the end the American system of industrial organization will constitute a genuine advance in industrial economy. Large corporations, which can afford the best machinery; which control abundant capital, and which can plan with scrupulous economy all the details of producing and selling an important product or service, are actually able to reduce the cost of production to a minimum; and in the cases of certain American corporations such results have actually been achieved. The new organization of American industry has created an economic mechanism which is capable of being wonderfully and indefinitely serviceable to the American people.
On the other hand, its serviceability is much diminished by the special opportunities it gives a few individuals. These opportunities do not amount in any case to a monopoly, but they do amount to a species of economic privilege which enable them to wring profits from the increasing American market disproportionate to the value of their economic services. What is still more unfortunate, however, is the equivocal position of these big corporations in respect to the laws under which they are organized, and in respect to the public authorities which are supposed to control them. Many of the large railway and industrial corporations have reached their present size partly by an evasion or a defiance of the law. Their organizers took advantage of the American system of local self-government and the American disposition to reduce the functions of the Federal government to a minimum—they took advantage of these legal conditions and political ideas to organize an industrial machinery which cannot be effectively reached by local statutes and officials. The favorable corporation laws of some states have been used as a means of preying upon the whole country; and the unfavorable corporation laws of other states have been practically nullified. The big corporations have proved to be too big and powerful for the laws and officials to which the American political system has subjected them; and their equivocal legal position has resulted in the corruption of American public life and in the serious deterioration of our system of local government.
The net result of the industrial expansion of the United States since the Civil War has been the establishment in the heart of the American economic and social system of certain glaring inequalities of condition and power. The greater American railroad and industrial corporations control resources and conduct operations on a scale unprecedented in the economic history of the world. The great American industrial leaders have accumulated fortunes for which there is also no precedent on the part of men who exercise no official political power. These inequalities are the result of the organization of American industry on almost a national scale,—an organization which was brought about as a means of escape from the intolerable evils of unregulated competition. Every aspect of American business methods has helped to make them inevitable, and the responsibility for them must be distributed over the whole business and social fabric. But in spite of the fact that they have originated as the inevitable result of American business methods and political ideas and institutions, they constitute a serious problem for a democracy to face; and this problem has many different aspects. Its most serious aspect is constituted by the sheer size of the resulting inequalities. The rich men and the big corporations have become too wealthy and powerful for their official standing in American life. They have not obeyed the laws. They have attempted to control the official makers, administrators, and expounders of the law. They have done little to allay and much to excite the resentment and suspicion. In short, while their work has been constructive from an economic and industrial standpoint, it has made for political corruption and social disintegration. Children, as they are, of the traditional American individualistic institutions, ideas, and practices, they have turned on their parents and dealt them an ugly wound. Either these economic monsters will destroy the system of ideas, institutions, and practices out of which they have issued or else be destroyed by them.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE POLITICAL SPECIALISTThe corporations were able to secure and to exercise an excessive and corrupt influence on legislation, because their aggrandizement coincided with a process of deterioration in our local political institutions. We have seen that the stress of economic competition had specialized the American business man and made him almost exclusively preoccupied with the advancement of his own private interests; and one of the first results of this specialization was an alteration in his attitude towards the political welfare of his country. Not only did he no longer give as much time to politics as he formerly did, but as his business increased in size and scope, he found his own interests by way of conflicting at many points with the laws of his country and with its well-being. He did not take this conflict very seriously. He was still reflected in the mirror of his own mind as a patriotic and a public-spirited citizen; but at the same time his ambition was to conquer, and he did not scruple to sacrifice both the law and the public weal to his own prosperity. All unknowingly he began to testify to a growing and a decisive division between the two primary interests of American life,—between the interest of the individual business man and the interest of the body politic; and he became a living refutation of the amiable theories of the Jacksonian Democrat that the two must substantially coincide. The business man had become merely a business man, and the conditions which had made him less of a politician had also had its effect upon the men whose business was that of politics. Just as business had become specialized and organized, so politics also became subject to specialization and organization. The appearance of the "Captain of Industry" was almost coincident with the appearance of the "Boss."
There has been a disposition to treat the "Boss" chiefly as the political creature of the corrupt corporation; and it is undoubtedly true that one of the most important functions of the municipal and state "Bosses" has been that of conducting negotiations with the corporations. But to consider the specialized organization of our local politics as the direct result of specialized organization of American business is wholly to misunderstand its significance. The two processes are the parallel effects of the same conditions and ideas working in different fields. Business efficiency under the conditions prevailing in our political and economic fabric demanded the "Captain of Industry." Political efficiency under our system of local government demanded the "Boss." The latter is an independent power who has his own special reasons for existence. He put in an embryonic appearance long before the large corporations had obtained anything like their existing power in American politics; and he will survive in some form their reduction to political insignificance. He has been a genuine and within limits a useful product of the American democracy; and it would be fatal either to undervalue or to misunderstand him.
The American system of local self-government encouraged the creation of the political "Boss," because it required such an enormous amount of political business. Some one was needed to transact this business, and the professional politician was developed to supply the need. There was no reason why such a need should have existed; because the amount of political business incident to state government could have been very much economized by a simpler method of organization. But American democratic ideas during the years when the state governments took form were wholly opposed to simplicity of organization. The state constitutions adopted during the period of Jacksonian supremacy seem designed to make local government costly in time and energy and irresponsible in action; and they provided the legal scenery in the midst of which the professional politician became the only effective hero.
The state constitutions were all very much influenced by the Federal instrument, but in the copies many attempts were made to improve upon the model. The Democracy had come to believe that the Federal Constitution tended to encourage independence and even special efficiency on the part of Federal officials; and it proposed to correct such an erroneous tendency in the more thoroughly democratic state governments. No attempt was, indeed, made to deprive the executive and the judicial officials of independence by making them the creatures of the legislative branch; for such a change, although conforming to earlier democratic ideas, would have looked in the direction of a concentration of responsibility. The far more insidious course was adopted of keeping the executive, the judicial, and the legislative branches of the government technically separate, while at the same time depriving all three of any genuine independence and efficiency. The term of the executive, for instance, was not allowed to exceed one or two years. The importance of his functions was diminished. His power of appointment was curtailed. Many of his most important executive assistants were elected by popular vote and made independent of him. In some few instances he was even deprived of a qualified veto upon legislation. But the legislature itself was not treated much better. Instead of deriving its power from a short constitution which conferred upon it full legislative responsibilities and powers, the tendency has been to incorporate an enormous mass of special and detailed legislation in the fundamental law, and so to diminish indefinitely the power of the legislative branch either to be useful or dangerous. Finally state judges instead of being appointed for life were usually elected for limited terms, so that they could scarcely avoid being more "amenable to public opinion." The tendency in every respect was to multiply elections and elective officials, divide responsibility and power, and destroy independence. The more "democratic" these constitutions became, the more clearly the Democracy showed its disposition to distrust its own representatives, and to deprive them of any chance of being genuinely representative.
The object of the Jacksonion Democrat in framing constitutions of this kind was to keep political power in the hands of the "plain people," and to forestall the domination of administrative and legislative specialists. The effect was precisely the opposite. They afforded the political specialist a wonderful opportunity. The ordinary American could not pretend to give as much time to politics as the smooth operation of this complicated machine demanded; and little by little there emerged in different parts of the country a class of politicians who spent all their time in nominating and electing candidates to these numerous offices. The officials so elected, instead of being responsible to the people, were responsible to the men to whom they owed their offices; and their own individual official power was usually so small that they could not put what little independence they possessed to any good use. As a matter of fact, they used their official powers chiefly for the benefit of their creators. They appointed to office the men whom the "Bosses" selected. They passed the measures which the machine demanded. In this way the professional politician gradually obtained a stock of political goods wherewith to maintain and increase his power. Reënforced by the introduction of the spoils system first into the state and then into the Federal civil services, a process of local political organization began after 1830 to make rapid headway. Local leaders appeared in different parts of the country who little by little relieved the farmer and the business man of the cares and preoccupations of government. In the beginning the most efficient of these politicians were usually Jacksonian Democrats, and they ruled both in the name of the people and by virtue of a sturdy popular following. They gradually increased in power, until in the years succeeding the war they became the dominant influence in local American politics, and had won the right to be called something which they would never have dared to call themselves, viz. a governing class.
While the local "Boss" nearly always belonged to the political party dominant in his neighborhood, so that he could in ordinary elections depend upon the regular party vote, still the real source of his power consisted in a band of personal retainers; and the means by which such groups were collected and held together contain a curious mixture of corruption and democracy. In the first place the local leader had to be a "good fellow" who lived in the midst of his followers and knew all about them. His influence was entirely dependent upon personal kindliness, loyalty, and good-comradeship. He was socially the playmate and the equal of his followers, and the relations among them were characterized by many admirable qualities. The group was within limits a genuine example of social democracy, and was founded on mutual understanding, good-will, and assistance. The leader used his official and unofficial power to obtain jobs for his followers. He succored them when in need; he sometimes protected them against the invidious activity of the police or the prosecuting attorneys; he provided excursions and picnics for them in hot weather; he tied them to himself by a thousand bonds of interest and association; he organized them into a clan, who supported him blindly at elections in return for a deal of personal kindliness and a multitude of small services; he became their genuine representative, whether official or not, because he represented their most vital interests and satisfied their most pressing and intimate needs.
The general method of political organization indicated above was perfected in the two decades succeeding the Civil War. The American democracy was divided politically into a multitude of small groups, organized chiefly for the purpose of securing the local and individual interests of these groups and their leaders, and supported by local and personal feeling, political patronage, and petty "graft." These groups were associated with both parties, and merely made the use of partisan ties and cries to secure the coöperation of more disinterested voters. The result was that so far as American political representation was merely local, it was generally corrupt, and it was always selfish. The leader's power depended absolutely on an appeal to the individual, neighborhood, and class interests of his followers. They were the "people"; he was the popular tribune. He could not retain his power for a month, in case he failed to subordinate every larger interest to the flattery, cajolery, and nourishment of his local clan. Thus the local representative system was poisoned at its source. The alderman, the assemblyman, or the congressman, even if he were an honest man, represented little more than the political powers controlling his district; and to be disinterested in local politics was usually equivalent to being indifferent.
Although these local clans were the basis of American political organization, they were not, of course, its ultimate fruit. In many of the cities, large and small, and in some of the states the leaders of the local groups were subordinated to one of their number who became the real "Boss" and who strengthened the district organizations by using for their benefit the municipal, state, and Federal patronage. The relation of the municipal or state "Boss" to the district leaders was similar to the relation which the district leader bore to his more important retainers. The "Boss" first obtained his primacy by means of diplomatic skill or force of character; and his ability to retain it depended upon his ability to satisfy the demands of the district leaders for patronage, while at the same time leading the organization to victory in the local elections. His special duties as "Boss" required personal prestige, strength of will, power of persuasive talking, good judgment of men, loyalty to his promises and his followers, and a complete lack of scruple. Unlike the district leader, however, the municipal "Boss" has tended to become a secretive and somewhat lonely person, who carried on his business behind closed doors, and on whom was visited the odium incurred by this whole system of political organization. The district leader either does not incur or is less affected by this odium, because his social status is precisely that of his followers. The "Boss," on the other hand, by this wealth and public position would naturally be an important member of the society in which he lives, whereas as a matter of fact he has come to be ostracized because of the source of his power and wealth. His leadership over-reached the district clan, which was real social basis; and the consequence was that the "Boss" became, to all appearances, a very unpopular man in the democracy which he ruled.
His secretiveness and his unpopularity point to one of the most important functions of the municipal and state "Bosses," to which as yet only incidental reference has been made. The "Boss" became the man who negotiated with the corporations, and through whom they obtained what they wanted. We have already seen that the large corporation, particularly those owning railroad and municipal franchises, have found that the purchase of a certain amount of political power was a necessary consequence of their dubious legal position. A traffic of this kind was not one, of course, to which many people could be admitted. It must be transmitted in secret, and by people who possessed full authority. An agreement to secure certain franchises or certain needed legislation in return for certain personal or party favors was not an agreement which could be made between a board of directors and a group of district leaders. If a large number of people were familiar with the details of such negotiations, something more than a hint thereof would be sure to leak out; and unquestionably the fact that a traffic of this kind was part of the political game had much to do with the ability of the municipal or state "Boss" to obtain and to keep his power. The profits not only enabled him to increase party funds and to line his own pockets, but it also furnished him with a useful and abundant source of patronage. He could get positions for the political henchmen of his district leaders, not only with the local and state governments, but with the corporations. Thus every "Boss," even those whose influence did not extend beyond an election district, was more or less completely identified with the corporations who occupied within his bailiwick any important relation to the state.
This alliance between the political machines and the big corporations—particularly those who operate railroads or control municipal franchises—was an alliance between two independent and coördinate powers in the kingdom of American practical affairs. The political "Boss" did not create the industrial leader for his own good purposes. Neither did the industrial leader create the machine and its "Boss," although he has done much to confirm the latter's influence. Each of them saw an opportunity to turn to his own account the individualistic "freedom" of American politics and industry. Each of them was enabled by the character of our political traditions to obtain an amount of power which the originators of those political ideas never anticipated, and which, if not illegal, was entirely outside the law. It so happened that the kind of power which each obtained was very useful to the other. A corporation which derived its profits from public franchises, or from a business transacted in many different states, found the purchase of a local or state machine well within its means and well according to its interests. The professional politicians who had embarked in politics as a business and who were making what they could out of it for themselves and their followers, could not resist this unexpected and lucrative addition to their market. But it must be remembered that the alliance was founded on interest rather than association, on mutual agreement rather than on any effective subordination one to another. A certain change in conditions might easily make their separate interests diverge, and abstract all the profits from their traffic. If anything happened, for instance, to make inter-state railroad corporations less dependent on the state governments, they would no longer need the expense of subsidizing the state machines. There are signs at the present time that these interests are diverging, and that such alliances will be less dangerous in the future than they have been in the past. But even if the alliance is broken, the peculiar unofficial organization of American industry and politics will persist, and will constitute, both in its consequences and its significance, two of our most important national problems.
It would be as grave a mistake, however, absolutely to condemn this process of political organization as it would absolutely to condemn the process of industrial organization. The huge corporation and the political machine were both created to satisfy a real and a permanent need—the needs of specialized leadership and associated action in these two primary American activities. That in both of these cases the actual method of organization has threatened vital public interests, and even the very future of democracy has been due chiefly to the disregard by the official American political system of the necessity and the consequences of specialized leadership and associated action. The political system was based on the assumption that the individualism it encouraged could be persuaded merely by the power of words to respect the public interest, that public officials could be deprived of independence and authority for the real benefit of the "plain people," and that the "plain people" would ask nothing from the government but their legal rights. These assumptions were all erroneous; and when associated action and specialized leadership became necessary in local American politics, the leaders and their machine took advantage of the defective official system to build up an unofficial system, better suited to actual popular needs. The "people" wanted the government to do something for them, and the politicians made their living and served their country by satisfying the want. To be sure, the "people" they benefited were a small minority of the whole population whose interests were far from being the public interest; but it was none the less natural that the people, whoever they were, should want the government to do more for them than to guarantee certain legal rights, and it was inevitable that they should select leaders who could satisfy their positive, if selfish, needs.
The consequence has been, however, a separation of actual political power from official political responsibility. The public officers are still technically responsible for the good government of the states, even if, as individuals, they have not been granted the necessary authority effectively to perform their task. But their actual power is even smaller than their official authority. They are almost completely controlled by the machine which secures their election or appointment. The leader or leaders of that machine are the rulers of the community, even though they occupy no offices and cannot be held in any way publicly responsible. Here, again, as in the case of the multi-millionaire, we have an example of a dangerous inequality in the distribution of power, and one which tends to maintain and perpetuate itself. The professional politician is frequently beaten and is being vigorously fought; but he himself understands how necessary he is under the existing local political organization, and how difficult it will be to dislodge him. Beaten though he be again and again, he constantly recovers his influence, because he is performing a necessary political task and because he is genuinely representative of the needs of his followers. Organizations such as Tammany in New York City are founded on a deeply rooted political tradition, a group of popular ideas, prejudices, and interests, and a species of genuine democratic association which are a guarantee of a long and tenacious life. They will survive much of the reforming machinery which is being created for their extirpation.
THE LABOR UNION AND THE DEMOCRATIC TRADITIONOne other decisive instance of this specialized organization of American activity remains to be considered—that of the labor unions. The power which the unions have obtained in certain industrial centers and the tightness of their organization would have seemed anomalous to the good Jacksonian Democrat. From his point of view the whole American democracy was a kind of labor union whose political constitution provided for a substantially equal division of the products of labor; and if the United States had remained as much of an agricultural community as it was in 1830, the Jacksonian system would have preserved a much higher degree of serviceability.
Except in the case of certain local Granger and Populist movements, the American farmers have never felt the necessity of organization to advance either their economic or their political interests. But when the mechanic or the day-laborer gathered into the cities, he soon discovered that life in a democratic state by no means deprived him of special class interests. No doubt he was at worst paid better than his European analogues, because the demand for labor in a new country was continually outrunning the supply; but on occasions he was, like his employer, threatened with merciless competition. The large and continuous stream of foreign immigrants, whose standards of living were in the beginning lower than those which prevailed in this country, were, particularly in hard times, a constant menace not merely to his advancement, but to the stability of his economic situation; and he began to organize partly for the purpose of protecting himself against such competition. During the past thirty years the work of organization has made enormous strides; and it has been much accelerated by the increasing industrial power of huge corporations. The mechanic and the laborer have come to believe that they must meet organization with organization, and discipline with discipline. Their object in forming trade associations has been militant. Their purpose has been to conquer a larger share of the economic product by aggressive associated action.
They have been very successful in accomplishing their object. In spite of the flood of alien immigration the American laborer has been able to earn an almost constantly increasing wage, and he devoutly thinks that his unions have been the chief agency of his stronger economic position. He believes in unionism, consequently, as he believes in nothing else. He is, indeed, far more aggressively preoccupied with his class, as contrasted with his individual interests, than are his employers. He has no respect for the traditional American individualism as applied to his own social and economic standing. Whenever he has had the power, he has suppressed competition as ruthlessly as have his employers. Every kind of contumelious reproach is heaped on the heads of the working men who dare to replace him when he strikes; and he does not scruple to use under such conditions weapons more convincing than the most opprobrious epithets. His own personality is merged in that of the union. No individual has any rights as opposed to the interests of the union. He fully believes, of course, in competition among employers, just as the employers are extremely enthusiastic over the individual liberty of the working man. But in his own trade he has no use for individuality of any kind. The union is to be composed of so many equal units who will work the same number of hours for the some wages, and no one of whom is to receive more pay even for more work. The unionist, that is, has come to depend upon his union for that material prosperity and advancement which, according to the American tradition, was to be the inevitable result of American political ideas and institutions. His attachment to his union has come to be the most important attachment of his life—more important in most cases than his attachment to the American ideal and to the national interest.
Some of the labor unions, like some of the corporations, have taken advantage of the infirmities of local and state governments to become arrogant and lawless. On the occasion of a great strike the strikers are often just as disorderly as they are permitted to be by the local police. When the police prevent them from resisting the employment of strike-breakers by force, they apparently believe that the political system of the country has been pressed into the service of their enemies; and they begin to wonder whether it will not be necessary for them to control such an inimical political organization. The average union laborer, even though he might hesitate himself to assault a "scab," warmly sympathizes with such assaults, and believes that in the existing state of industrial warfare they are morally justifiable. In these and in other respects he places his allegiance to his union and to his class above his allegiance to his state and to his country. He becomes in the interests of his organization a bad citizen, and at times an inhuman animal, who is ready to maim or even to kill another man and for the supposed benefit of himself and his fellows.
The most serious danger to the American democratic future which may issue from aggressive and unscrupulous unionism consists in the state of mind of which mob-violence is only one expression. The militant unionists are beginning to talk and believe as if they were at war with the existing social and political order—as if the American political system was as inimical to their interests as would be that of any European monarchy or aristocracy. The idea is being systematically propagated that the American government is one which favors the millionaire rather than the wage-earner; and the facts which either superficially or really support this view are sufficiently numerous to win for it an apparently increasing number of adherents. The union laborer is tending to become suspicious, not merely of his employer, but of the constitution of American society. His morals are becoming those of men engaged in a struggle for life. The manifestations of this state of mind in notion are not very numerous, although on many occasions they have worn a sufficiently sinister aspect. But they are numerous enough to demand serious attention, for the literature popular among the unionists is a literature, not merely of discontent, but sometimes of revolt.
Whether this aggressive unionism will ever become popular enough to endanger the foundations of the American political and social order, I shall not pretend to predict. The practical dangers resulting from it at any one time are largely neutralized by the mere size of the country and its extremely complicated social and industrial economy. The menace it contains to the nation as a whole can hardly become very critical as long as so large a proportion of the American voters are land-owning farmers. But while the general national well-being seems sufficiently protected for the present against the aggressive assertion of the class interests of the unionists, the legal public interest of particular states and cities cannot be considered as anywhere near so secure; and in any event the existence of aggressive discontent on that part of the unionists must constitute a serious problem for the American legislator and statesman. Is there any ground for such aggressive discontent? How has it come to pass that the American political system, which was designed to guarantee the welfare and prosperity of the people, is the subject of such violent popular suspicion? Can these suspicions be allayed merely by curbing the somewhat excessive opportunities of the rich man and by the diminution of his influence upon the government? Or does the discontent indicate the existence of more radical economic evils or the necessity of more radical economic reforms?
However the foregoing questions ought to be answered, there can be no doubt as to the nature of the answers, proposed by the unionists themselves. The unionist leaders frequently offer verbal homage to the great American principle of equal rights, but what they really demand is the abandonment of that principle. What they want is an economic and political order which will discriminate in favor of union labor and against non-union labor; and they want it on the ground that the unions have proved to be the most effective agency on behalf of economic and social amelioration of the wage-earner. The unions, that is, are helping most effectively to accomplish the task, traditionally attributed to the American democratic political system—the task of raising the general standard of living; and the unionists claim that they deserve on this ground recognition by the state and active encouragement. Obviously, however, such encouragement could not go very far without violating both the Federal and many state constitutions—the result being that there is a profound antagonism between our existing political system and what the unionists consider to be a perfectly fair demand. Like all good Americans, while verbally asking for nothing but equal rights, they interpret the phrase so that equal rights become equivalent to special rights.
Of all the hard blows which the course of American political and economic development has dealt the traditional system of political ideas and institutions, perhaps the hardest is this demand for discrimination on behalf of union labor. It means that the more intelligent and progressive American workingmen are coming to believe that the American political and economic organization does not sufficiently secure the material improvement of the wage-earner. This conviction may be to a large extent erroneous. Certain it is that the wages of unorganized farm laborers have been increasing as rapidly during the past thirty years as have the wages of the organized mechanics. But whether erroneous or not, it is widespread and deep-rooted; and whatever danger it possesses is derived from the fact that it affords to a substantially revolutionary purpose a large and increasing popular following. The other instances of organization for special purposes which have been remarked, have superficially, at least, been making for conservatism. The millionaire and the professional politician want above all things to be let alone, and to be allowed to enjoy the benefit of their conquests. But the labor organizations cannot exercise the power necessary in their opinion to their interests without certain radical changes in the political and economic order; and inasmuch as their power is likely to increase rather than diminish, the American people are confronted with the prospect of persistent, unscrupulous, and increasing agitation on behalf of an economic and political reorganization in favor of one class of citizens.
The large corporations and the unions occupy in certain respects a similar relation to the American political system. Their advocates both believe in associated action for themselves and in competition for their adversaries. They both demand governmental protection and recognition, but resent the notion of efficient governmental regulation. They have both reached their existing power, partly because of the weakness of the state governments, to which they are legally subject, and they both are opposed to any interference by the Federal government—except exclusively on their own behalf. Yet they both have become so very powerful that they are frequently too strong for the state governments, and in different ways they both traffic for their own benefit with the politicians, who so often control those governments. Here, of course, the parallelism ends and the divergence begins. The corporations have apparently the best of the situation because existing institutions are more favorable to the interests of the corporations than to the interests of the unionists; but on the other hand, the unions have the immense advantage of a great and increasing numerical strength. They are beginning to use the suffrage to promote a class interest, though how far they will travel on this perilous path remains doubtful. In any event, it is obvious that the development in this country of two such powerful and unscrupulous and well-organized special interests has created a condition which the founders of the Republic never anticipated, and which demands as a counterpoise a more effective body of national opinion, and a more powerful organization of the national interest.
GOVERNMENT BY LAWYERSThe corporation, the politician, and the union laborer are all illustrations of the organization of men representing fundamental interests for special purposes. The specialization of American society has not, however, stopped with its specialized organization. A similar process has been taking place in the different professions, arts, and trades; and of these much the most important is the gradual transformation of the function of the lawyer in the American political system. He no longer either performs the same office or occupies the same place in the public mind as he did before the Civil War; and the nature and meaning of this change cannot be understood without some preliminary consideration of the important part which American lawyers have played in American political history.
The importance of that part is both considerable and peculiar—as is the debt of gratitude which the American people owe to American lawyers. They founded the Republic, and they have always governed it. Some few generals, and even one colonel, have been elected to the Presidency of the United States; and occasionally business men of one kind or another have prevailed in local politics; but really important political action in our country has almost always been taken under the influence of lawyers. On the whole, American laws have been made by lawyers; they have been executed by lawyers; and, of course, they have been expounded by lawyers. Their predominance has been practically complete; and so far as I know, it has been unprecedented. No other great people, either in classic, mediæval, or modern times, has ever allowed such a professional monopoly of governmental functions. Certain religious bodies have submitted for a while to the dominion of ecclesiastical lawyers; but the lawyer has rarely been allowed to interfere either in the executive or the legislative branches of the government. The lawyer phrased the laws and he expounded them for the benefit of litigants. The construction which he has placed upon bodies of customary law, particularly in England, has sometimes been equivalent to the most permanent and fruitful legislation. But the people responsible for the government of European countries have rarely been trained lawyers, whereas American statesmen, untrained in the law, are palpable exceptions. This dominion of lawyers is so defiant of precedent that it must be due to certain novel and peremptory American conditions.
The American would claim, of course, that the unprecedented prominence of the lawyer in American politics is to be explained on the ground that the American government is a government by law. The lawyer is necessarily of subordinate importance in any political system tending towards absolutism. He is even of subordinate importance in a liberal system such as that of Great Britain, where Crown and Parliament, acting together, have the power to enact any desired legislation. The Federal Constitution, on the other hand, by establishing the Supreme Court as the interpreter of the Fundamental Law, and as a separate and independent department of the government, really made the American lawyer responsible for the future of the country. In so far as the Constitution continues to prevail, the Supreme Court becomes the final arbiter of the destinies of the United States. Whenever its action can be legally invoked, it can, if necessary, declare the will of either or both the President and Congress of no effect; and inasmuch as almost every important question of public policy raises corresponding questions of Constitutional interpretation, its possible or actual influence dominates American political discussion. Thus the lawyer, when consecrated as Justice of the Supreme Court, has become the High Priest of our political faith. He sits in the sanctuary and guards the sacred rights which have been enshrined in the ark of the Constitution.
The importance of lawyers as legislators and executives in the actual work of American government has been an indirect consequence of the peculiar function of the Supreme Court in the American political system. The state constitutions confer a corresponding function on the highest state courts, although they make no similar provision for the independence of the state judiciary. The whole business of American government is so entangled in a network of legal conditions that a training in the law is the beet education which an American public man can receive. The first question asked of any important legislative project, whether state or Federal, concerns its constitutionality; and the question of its wisdom is necessarily subordinate to these fundamental legal considerations. The statesman, who is not a lawyer, suffers under many disadvantages—not the least of which is the suspicion wherewith he is regarded by his legal fellow-statesmen. When they talk about a government by law, they really mean a government by lawyers; and they are by way of believing that government by anybody but lawyers is really unsafe.
The Constitution bestowed upon the American lawyer a constructive political function; and this function has been confirmed and even enlarged by American political custom and practice. The work of finally interpreting the Federal Constitution has rarely been either conceived or executed in a merely negative spirit. The construction, which successive generations of Supreme Court Justices have placed upon the instrument, has tended to enlarge its scope, and make it a legal garment, which was being better cut to fit the American political and economic organism. In its original form, and to a certain extent in its present form, the Constitution was in many respects an ambiguous document which might have been interpreted along several different lines; and the Supreme Court in its official expositions has been influenced by other than strictly legal and verbal reasons—by considerations of public welfare or by general political ideas. But such constructive interpretations have been most cautiously and discreetly admitted. In proclaiming them, the Supreme Court has usually represented a substantial consensus of the better legal opinion of the time; and constructions of this kind are accepted and confirmed only when any particular decision is the expression of some permanent advance or achievement in political thinking by the American lawyer. It becomes consequently of the utmost importance that American lawyers should really represent the current of national political opinion. The Supreme Court has been, on the whole, one of the great successes of the American political system, because the lawyers, whom it represented, were themselves representative of the ideas and interests of the bulk of their fellow-countrymen; and if for any reason they become less representative, a dangerous division would be created between the body of American public opinion and its official and final legal expositors. If the lawyers have any reason to misinterpret a serious political problem, the difficulty of dealing therewith is much increased, because in addition to the ordinary risks of political therapeutics there will be added that of a false diagnosis by the family doctor. The adequacy of the lawyers' training, the disinterestedness of their political motives, the fairness of their mental outlook, and the closeness of their contact with the national public opinion—all become matters of grave public concern.
It can be fairly asserted that the qualifications of the American lawyer for his traditional task as the official interpreter and guide of American constitutional democracy have been considerably impaired. Whatever his qualifications have been for the task (and they have, perhaps, been over-estimated) they are no longer as substantial as they were. Not only has the average lawyer become a less representative citizen, but a strictly legal training has become a less desirable preparation for the candid consideration of contemporary political problems.
Since 1870 the lawyer has been traveling in the same path as the business man and the politician. He has tended to become a professional specialist, and to give all his time to his specialty. The greatest and most successful American lawyers no longer become legislators and statesmen as they did in the time of Daniel Webster. They no longer obtain the experience of men and affairs which an active political life brings with it. Their professional practice, whenever they are successful, is so remunerative and so exacting that they cannot afford either the time or the money which a political career demands. The most eminent American lawyers usually remain lawyers all their lives; and if they abandon private practice at all, it is generally for the purpose of taking a seat on the Bench. Like nearly all other Americans they have found rigid specialization a condition of success.
A considerable proportion of our legislators and executives continue to be lawyers, but the difference is that now they are more likely to be less successful lawyers. Knowledge of the law and a legal habit of mind still have a great practical value in political work; and the professional politicians, who are themselves rarely men of legal training, need the services of lawyers whose legal methods are not attenuated by scruples. Lawyers of this class occupy the same relation to the local political "Bosses" as the European lawyer used to occupy in the court of the absolute monarch. He phrases the legislation which the ruler decides to be of private or public benefit; and he acts frequently as his employer's official mouthpiece and special pleader.
No doubt many excellent and even eminent lawyers continue to play an important and an honorable part in American politics. Mr. Elihu Root is a conspicuous example of a lawyer, who has sacrificed a most lucrative private practice for the purpose of giving his country the benefit of his great abilities. Mr. Taft was, of course, a lawyer before he was an administrator, though he had made no professional success corresponding to that of Mr. Root. Mr. Hughes, also, was a successful lawyer. The reform movement has brought into prominence many public-spirited lawyers, who, either as attorney-generals or as district attorneys, have sought vigorously to enforce the law and punish its violators. The lawyers, like every class of business and professional men, have felt the influence of the reforming ideas, which have become so conspicuous in American practical politics, and they have performed admirable and essential work on behalf of reform.
But it is equally true that the most prominent and thorough-going reformers, such as Roosevelt, Bryan, and Hearst, are not lawyers by profession, and that the majority of prominent American lawyers are not reformers. The tendency of the legally trained mind is inevitably and extremely conservative. So far as reform consists in the enforcement of the law, it is, of course, supported by the majority of successful lawyers; but so far as reform has come to mean a tendency to political or economic reorganization, it has to face the opposition of the bulk of American legal opinion. The existing political order has been created by lawyers; and they naturally believe somewhat obsequiously in a system for which they are responsible, and from which they benefit. This government by law, of which they boast, is not only a government by lawyers, but is a government in the interest of litigation. It makes legal advice more constantly essential to the corporation and the individual than any European political system. The lawyer, just as much as the millionaire and the politician, has reaped a bountiful harvest from the inefficiency and irresponsibility of American state governments, and from the worship of individual rights.
They have corporations in Europe, but they have nothing corresponding to the American corporation lawyer. The ablest American lawyers have been retained by the special interests. In some cases they have been retained to perform tasks which must have been repugnant to honest men; but that is not the most serious aspect of the situation. The retainer which the American legal profession has accepted from the corporations inevitably increases its natural tendency to a blind conservatism; and its influence has been used not for the purpose of extricating the large corporations from their dubious and dangerous legal situation, but for the purpose of keeping them entangled in its meshes. At a time when the public interest needs a candid reconsideration of the basis and the purpose of the American legal system, they have either opposed or contributed little to the essential work, and in adopting this course they have betrayed the interests of their more profitable clients—the large corporations themselves—whose one chance of perpetuation depends upon political and legal reconstruction.
The conservative believer in the existing American political system will doubtless reply that the lawyer, in so far as he opposes radical reform or reorganization, is merely remaining true to his function as the High Priest of American constitutional democracy. And no doubt it is begging the question at the present stage of this discussion, to assert that American lawyers as such are not so well qualified as they were to guide American political thought and action. But it can at least be maintained that, assuming some radical reorganization to be necessary, the existing prejudices, interests, and mental outlook of the American lawyer disqualify him for the task. The legal profession is risking its traditional position as the mouthpiece of the American political creed and faith upon the adequacy of the existing political system. If there is any thorough-going reorganization needed, it will be brought about in spite of the opposition of the legal profession. They occupy in relation to the modern economic and political problem a position similar to that of the Constitutional Unionists previous to the Civil War. Those estimable gentlemen believed devoutly that the Constitution, which created the problem of slavery and provoked the anti-slavery agitation, was adequate to its solution. In the same spirit learned lawyers now affirm that the existing problems can easily be solved, if only American public opinion remain faithful to the Constitution. But it may be that the Constitution, as well as the system of local political government built up around the Federal Constitution, is itself partly responsible for some of the existing abuses, evils, and problems; and if so, the American lawyer may be useful, as he was before the Civil War, in evading our difficulties; but he will not be very useful in settling them. He may try to settle them by decisions of the Supreme Court; but such decisions,—assuming, of course, that the problem is as inexorable as was that of the legal existence of slavery in a democratic nation,—such decisions would have precisely the same effect on public opinion as did the Dred Scott decision. They would merely excite a crisis, which they were intended to allay, and strengthen the hands of the more radical critics of the existing political system.
The changes which have been taking place in industrial and political and social conditions have all tended to impair the consistency of feeling characteristic of the first phase of American national democracy. Americans are divided from one another much more than they were during the Middle Period by differences of interest, of intellectual outlook, of moral and technical standards, and of manner of life. Grave inequalities of power and deep-lying differences of purpose have developed in relation of the several primary American activities. The millionaire, the "Boss," the union laborer, and the lawyer, have all taken advantage of the loose American political organization to promote somewhat unscrupulously their own interests, and to obtain special sources of power and profit at the expense of a wholesome national balance. But the foregoing examples of specialized organization and purposes do not stand alone. They are the most conspicuous and the most troublesome because of the power wielded by those particular classes, and because they can claim for their purposes the support of certain aspects of the American national tradition. Yet the same process has been taking place in all the other departments of American social and intellectual life. Technical experts of all kinds—engineers, men of letters, and artists—have all of them been asserting much more vigorously their own special interests and purposes. In so asserting themselves they cannot claim the support of the American national democratic convention. On the contrary, the proclamation of high technical standards and of insistent individual purposes is equivalent to a revolt from the traditions of the Middle Period, which were all in favor of cheap work and the average worker. But different as is the situation of these technical experts, the fundamental meaning of their self-assertion is analogous to that of the millionaire and the "Boss." The vast incoherent mass of the American people is falling into definite social groups, which restrict and define the mental outlook and social experience of their members. The all-round man of the innocent Middle Period has become the exception. The earlier homogeneity of American society has been impaired, and no authoritative and edifying, but conscious, social ideal has as yet taken its place.
The specialized organization of American industry, politics, and labor, and the increasingly severe special discipline imposed upon the individual, are not to be considered as evils. On the contrary, they are indications of greater practical efficiency, and they contain a promise of individual moral and intellectual emancipation. But they have their serious and perilous aspects, because no sufficient provision has been made for them in the national democratic tradition. What it means is that the American nation is being confronted by a problem which the earlier national democracy expected to avoid—the social problem. By the social problem is usually meant the problem of poverty; but grave inequalities of wealth are merely the most dangerous and distressing expression of fundamental differences among the members of a society of interest and of intellectual and moral standards. In its deepest aspect, consequently, the social problem is the problem of preventing such divisions from dissolving the society into which they enter—of keeping such a highly differentiated society fundamentally sound and whole.
In this country the solution of the social problem demands the substitution of a conscious social ideal for the earlier instinctive homogeneity of the American nation. That homogeneity has disappeared never to return. We should not want it to return, because it was dependent upon too many sacrifices of individual purpose and achievement. But a democracy cannot dispense with the solidarity which it imparted to American life, and in one way or another such solidarity must be restored. There is only one way in which it can be restored, and that is by means of a democratic social ideal, which shall give consistency to American social life, without entailing any essential sacrifice of desirable individual and class distinctions. I have used the word "restoration" to describe this binding and healing process; but the consistency which would result from the loyal realization of a comprehensive coherent democratic social ideal would differ radically from the earlier American homogeneity of feeling. The solidarity which it would impart to American society would have its basis in feeling and its results in good fellowship; but it must always remain a promise and constructive ideal rather than a finished performance. The social problem must, as long as societies continue to endure, be solved afresh by almost every generation; and the one chance of progress depends both upon an invincible loyalty to a constructive social ideal and upon a current understanding by the new generation of the actual experience of its predecessors.