The Confessions Of A Reformer

Frederic C. Howe

[Part 2 of 11]


...It was with difficulty that realism got lodgment in my mind; early assumptrons as to virtue and vice, goodness and evil remained in my mind long after I had tried to discard them. This is, I think, the most characteristic inffuence of my generation. It explains the nature of our reforms, the regulatory legislation in morals and economics, our belief in men rather than in institutions and our messages to other peoples.[p.17]

The important thing was to live as other men lived, do as other men did, avoid any departure from what other men thought. Not to conform was dangerous to one's reputation. Men who had strange ideas, who protested, who thought for themselves, were quietly ostracised. ...[p.18]

At Chautauqua I heard some lectures on political economy by Richard T. Ely, of Johns Hopkins. They made me want to know more about the big world outside of my little home town. I met John H. Finley, later president of the College of the City of New York ... who was then a student at Johns Hopkins... I would become an editorial writer on a city newspaper. In order to be that I felt that I should know something about economics, history, politics. Apparently Johns Hopkins was the place where one should study these things. ...[p.20]


Daniel C. Gilman, the president of Johns Hopkins, was a great educator. He had been selected by the board of trustees and given a free hand in working out the plans for the university before its doors were opened for students. He determined that the endowment should be spent on men rather than on buildings, and that the university should be devoted primarily to graduate work. Up to that time America sent her advanced students abroad, especiaily to Germany, for study. The men whom he gathered about him as instructors brought with them an atmosphere of the German university, of its freedom, its unconventionality, its enthusiasm for research work. American universities had followed the models of Oxford and Cambridge. They were church institutions; they emphasized the classics; they were designed primarily for the education of the sons of gentlemen. Doctor Gilman selected as instructors men of enthusiasm, of independence, of courage.[pp.26--27]

...There was no campus. There were no college publications; athletics were negligible. Students learned how to use books and how to enjoy their minds. Teachers and students alike felt a dignity and enthusiasm in their work.

My subjects were political economy, history, and jurisprudence. Professor Ely, whose lectures had attracted me to the university, was head of the department of political economy. He was an economic radical, critical of old traditions and of accepted authorities. Adam Smith, Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill wrote, he said, about the world as it had been in the days of our grandfathers, when there were no railroads, when large-scale industry was not known, huge aggregations of capital had not appeared, and the industrial revolution had just begun. Traditional political economy was a science a hundred years out of date. It was without reality. Text-books talked about the universality of competition; Professor Ely told us that competition was coming to an end. They outlined laws of rent, of profits, of demand and supply that were inoperative. They pictured a society of struggle, while Professor Ely showed us a world of monopoly, an economic feudalism that was fast taking the place of the theoretical world of freedom and equal opportunity.

Under his teaching I found myself wrenched loose from the economic theories current in Meadville. Men who came under his influence learned to look at the world with inquiring minds and to challenge the finality of established things.

The year I took my degree Doctor Ely left Johns Hopkins to go to the University of Wisconsin. There a few years later he was tried by the Board of Regents for alleged socialistic teaching. It was, I believe, one of the first heresy trials in the universities. Doctor Ely was vindicated and a tablet was put up on the campus as a monument to academic freedom, but the trial sent a chill through political economists everywhere and aided effectively in transferring discussion of social questions from the universities to the street-corners and the radical press.[pp.28-29]

From many of the evils of American education Johns Hopkins was conspicuously free. Censorship of thought, mental docility, waste of enthusiasms, of adventure, of individuality -- all were foreign to it. It was free from fear. It was as unlike the timid small college from which I came as it is unlike the universities of to-day, which seek their presidents from among business men, lawyers, good money-getters, and in which freedom of teaching is being subordinated to the desire for a big endowment. The teachers, not the trustees, determined what was to be taught and how they should teach it. There was no placating of possible donors, no mirroring of the views of an economic class. In the nineties at Johns Hopkins I had the good fortune to be born into the world of thought, to be associated with men to whom honesty was a matter of course, and to whom courage was the first essential of a gentleman and a scholar.

Johns Hopkins freed me from many small-town limitations. It gave me new authorities, but they were still authorities outside of myself. I continued to think as others thought, only now I was thinking as did wise men, men who paid little attention to the church, but who had a worshipful veneration for some scientist or teacher under whose influence they had fallen. I accepted these new authorities as quite natural. Acceptance fell in with my earlier assumption that authority was proper, necessary, probably the first of the moralities. Not till years after did I come consciously to believe that I had a right to be my own authority. And not until I had made serious mistakes did I awaken to the belief that I had some rights of my own in the world, the right to pursue my own enthusiasms, to choose what was agreeable rather than what was not. Duty was always first; happiness was to be scrutinized.[pp.33-34]


Our greatest lecturer, as he was the most distinguished graduate of the department, was Woodrow Wilson. Austere, never inviting intimacies, he kept quite by himself at the university. ...

I permitted no conflicts to interfere with his courses. I read religiously the books he suggested as prescribed reading. What he had achieved I might also achieve if I were diligent enough. I absorbed his conceptions of disinterested statesmanship, of government by noblesse oblige. That early discipleship gave me, years later, clews to the understanding of the powerful, baffled, lonely personality who took us into the Great War.

The Wilson whose words I accepted then as I did a quarter of a century later was a child of Caivinistic forebears, of Virginia backgrounds, of university enthusiasms. He never escaped from the church, the reveries of student days, from love for his native State, They explain his written words, they made him what he was.[p.35]

He studied at the University of Virginia as a Virginian should. No university left a stronger stamp on its students than did the foundation of Thomas Jefferson. At Johns Hopkins he continued the study of history and politics. There he lived in the lives of the Fathers of the Republic. He read their State Papers, studied the debates of the Constitutional Convention, and idealized them as philosopher-statesmen who had left imperishable monuments to liberty in the written word. These Virginia gentlemen had not only won liberty by the sword, they had made it permanent by great documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Federal Constitution. They had laid the foundations of democracy, industrial as well as political. Only those students who lived in the atmosphere of Johns Hopkins during these early years know the veneration in which the men who gave these written monuments to the world were held.[p.36]

At Johns Hopkins, Woodrow Wilson fell under the spell of Waiter Bagehot, one of the greatest of British essayists. He urged his students to read and reread Bagehot as he himself had done. His Congressionral Government was said to have been inspired by Bagehot's British Constitution, as were many of his essays on public men. Bagehot gave the student Wilson that which his mind wanted; a Picture of what a great constitutional statesman should be. Through Bagehot's eyes he saw British statesmen as he saw himself. They were drawn from the best families, trained from youth for the service Of the state. They grew up in the atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge, and were exalted by traditions of disinterested public service. They had no private ends to serve; because of their independent wealth they were influenced only by the welfare of the empire. They were the natural rulers of the constitutional state. England was a gentlemen's country. And Mr. Wilson believed in gentlemen, in selected men, in the platonic sense of the term. To Woodrow Wilson the scholar it was easy to idealize a country that put its scholars in politics and kept them there as it kept Arthur Balfour, James Bryce, and other men of his own type.

A love of English Institutions was strong in Mr. Wilson even during his student days. He organized then a debating society known as the University Commons, modelled after the Oxford Union. Its proceedings were carried on as are the proceedings In the House of Commons. There was a ministry and an opposition. Weekly debates were staged on current political issues, and ministries rose or fell on votes of confidence. As a dissertation for his doctor's degree Mr. Wilson had written Congressional Government, which was considered the best book written by an American on our form of government. It treated the British constitution with its responsible ministries sitting in Parliament as better fitted than our own for popular government.

Woodrow Wilson loved England as the mother of civil liberty and of parliamentary government. She had given us the Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, and Petition of Rights. She had exiled the Stuarts for their betrayal of English liberties and had called in Cromwell and William of Orange to re-establish them. In his mind England was the literal mother of America. From her we had taken our political institutions. Also our system ofjurisprudence. His chief criticisms of the American Constitution related to those features which failed to follow the British parliamentary model. It was this love for British forms that led him to read his messages to Congress in person and to treat himself as a Premier rather than as a President. As a matter of fact he was better fitted by temperament to serve as a parliamentary leader than as a. President, and he would have felt much more at home at Westminster than in Washington.[pp.37-38]

Mr. Wilson gave us no glimpse of the economic background of the English ruling class. There was always the assumption that these public men were not moved by private gain. It was never hinted in his lecture-room that the British landed gentry, bankers, and business men enacted laws to Protect their own class and group; looked out, in short for their own interests. Nor that the House of Lords was in the nature of a private corporation representative of special interests even more than the United States Senate. He was not interested in economics.

Woodrow Wilson prized the blood of his forebears. It was the blood of the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Madisons, Lees which flowed back in its purity to old England. During the Peace Conference Mr. Wilson went to Buckingham Palace, to the old Guildhall, to Carlisle with a pride of birth, which the British never failed to keep alive before his eyes. He was the kin, the equal, of the men he sat among from the British Parliament. He loved England as did they. His blood was the same as theirs. He knew her history better than did most of his English associates, and he was proud of the service which he had been able to render to the mother country.[p.38]

Another university influence permanently affected Woodrow Wilson. At Johns Hopkins history was studied from original sources, from American State Papers, from The Federalist, from the writings of the Fathers; the text-book was secondary. We were directed to read and reread the writings of the Presidents, especially of Washington, jefferson, and Madison. We read the debates of the Constitutional Convention, the letters of these early men. This reverence for State Papers lived on in President Wilson as it did in all of his contemporaries It exalted the written word; it made him careful of his official addresses and communications to Congress. Just as he gathered his pictures of men out of their public utterances, so subsequent historians would Judge him from the same source. His other addresses may pass away; his History of the United States may be forgotten; the things he did may be condemned; but generations hence students in the universities and statesmen at the Capital will find the Woodrow Wilson of his own reveries, the Woodrow Wilson that he wanted preserved in the State Papers written by him to his contemporaries.

Woodrow Wilson the President is to be found in these early influences. He never outgrew them. He lived in a world of dreams rather than with men. His reveries were of English and American statesmen, himself among the number; they were the reveries of the student, of the admiring biographer, of the historian of the Victorian age, when men were measured by ideological standards rather than by the more realistic standards of to-day. He was always religious, Calvinistic. He loved Virginia, the Mother of Presidents, and esteemed great documents as the most enduring of deeds. His heroes had phrased liberty, had inspired movements, had given the world charters of freedom. They had won great victories by the pen.[p.39]


...A fascinating little book by Frederic Bastiat that I read that winter confirmed my estimate of the correctness of [a saloon owner's] analysis of regulation. It was entitled Economic Fallacies and showed up the seen and unseen effects of sumptuary legislation. The way out of the saloon problem I came to feel was by taking off all the taxes. Taxation not only failed to reform the businesses such as saloon, it produced by- products that were worse than the evils it sought to cure. By taxation we had destroyed the comfortable, friendly saloon, such as I had known in Baltimore around the university, where any one who drank too much or made himself a nuisance was put out. By taxation and regulation we made the saloon an evil, involved it in politics, associated it with graft. We tried with it, as with almost every problem of its kind, every solution except letting it alone.[p.54]

Still my early judgments as to the stupidity of regulatory legislaton have been strengthened with time, as has by contempt for the hypocrisy that is identified with it.[p.55]


...Politics I had believed was the business of a gentleman. It should be in the hands of good men -- men who had succeeded in business, who observed the conventions of life, who had graduated from universities. Goodness would cure political ills. The scholar in politics was the ultimate ideal, the ideal of Plato, of James Bryce, of Woodrow Wilson. By disinterested service, by not wanting anything for ourselves, the state could be redeemed.[p.57]

Equipped with this philosophy, I sat about saloons with officers of the law, and came across a view of life that I had not known before. Here was a world of political reality. Here politics was part of everyday life, part of the family, of religion, of race. Politics was daily work. My state was an abstraction. On the Bowery it was a real thing -- a city block, a voting precinct, or a ward. To me politics meant disinterested service. To the people of the East Side it meant getting something for themselves and their friends. To me duty to the state was the important thing; to them the duty was to themselves. Government meant the district leader, the policeman, the local boss. ...[p.57]

...To be loyal to one's friends, to stand by the gang, to do as you were told, until you were in turn selected to tell others what to do, was all that the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the government of the United States meant to the average man in lower New York twenty-five years ago.[p.58]

It was the Irish cIan transplanted to New York. As I watched its workings and remembered the praise lavished in the university on the English conception of government, I saw an age-long conflict between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celt. The Irish have wanted a state that did things for them; the Anglo-Saxons have wanted a state that did nothing. The English had no need of such a state. They were interested in making money, in getting on in the world. Business should do as it pleased; the state should own nothing and be nothing beyond a big policeman. Politics in England was a negative thing, aristocratic, distrustful of the people. My conception of politics as the business of gentlemen seemed now to have a shadow cast alongside it. It occurred to me that the British state, ruled by men of wealth and leisure, was ruled for them, not for the people; they unwillingly allowed others a share in it. I found myself leaning unaccountably to the Irish view of things. They warmed the state into a human thing, made frank demands on it for things they could not get for themselves. They provided an amalgam to extreme Anglo-Saxon individualism, which had an aversion to the state and a resentment of any extension of its activities beyond routine things. I began to think that perhaps politics had a human side, perhaps.the state should do things for the happiness of its people instead of being merely a policeman. And perhaps things had to be gotten by the people who needed them most, not for them by some scholar or leader.[p.59]


I ... secured the position I had applied for as secretary of the Pennsylvania Tax Conference, and in the fall went to Pittsburgh to take the bar examinations.[p.69]

...There was nowhere an outcry over the evil thing of government by business, as represented by [Senator Matthew Quary, who ruled Pennsylvania with a rod of iron]. Apparently the people did not want to rule themselves. They preferred to have their officers selected by some one else. The State was pretty rotten, every one admitted, but a change -- well, nobody knew what a change might do to business.[p.72]

As secretary of the Tax Commission I saw things that confused what I had learned at the university. Members of the commission were educated, intelfigent, well-to-do men; they went to church; they were respected in the community. Yet they saw no impropriety in taking passes from the railroads; they grew indignant at my statement that they were relieving the railroads of millions of taxes, or that the facts they used were not accurate. Everywhere there was indifference to political conditions and approval of Boss Quay. To speak critically of him was to invite disaster, professional ostracism. ...[p.72]

Pittsburgh seemed less and less inviting to me as I lingered on in it. I hated the dirt; one rarely saw the sun. The city was so corruptly governed that the streets were not well paved, there were no decent public buildings, and there was no concern voer unsightly conditions. ...[p.73]

I decided that I was not willing to spend my life in Pittsburgh and that I would first find a place to live and then adjust my professional life to it. I visited Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, and liked Cleveland best. It had possibilities of beauty. It stretched for miles along the lake front and still kept some of the quality of a small town. ...[p.73]

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