Saturday, January 26, 2008

Moralists or Pragmatists: The Mugwumps 1884-1900

Mugwump Seth Low, last Mayor of Brooklyn, Mayor of New York City and President of Columbia University

Gerald W. McFarland, editor. Moralists or Pragmatists? The Mugwumps, 1884-1900: A Penetrating Study of This Political Reform Movement. Articles by Robert L. Beisner, Goeffrey T. Blodgett, Ari Hoogenboom, Michael G. Kammen, Gerald W. McFarland, Gordon S. Wood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975. 152 pages.

This a good book. When read in combination with Gerald W. McFarland's Mugwumps, Morals and Politics one gets a good appreciation for McFarland's sound scholarship as well as the mugwumps. All of the essays are good and several are excellent.

McFarland notes (p. 2-3) that:

"Modern stereotypes of liberalism scarcely fit the Mugwumps...In economics they adopted the classical nineteenth-century liberal position that the greatest good would be served when the supposedly 'natural' laws of competition and of supply and demand were allowed to work without interruption. On these grounds they denounced most proposals for federal social and economic legislation. Inflationary financial schemes--advocated by Greenbackers and Populists--would simply create 'dishonest' dollars, the Mugwumps charged. Similarly, they condemned the protective tariff as government paternalism on behalf of special interests...

"Implicit in the Mugwumps' careers are three subjects--corruption, motivation and political strategy--which have particular relevance to us..."

McFarland raises the question of what the Mugwumps' motivations were: simple interest in reform, economic self-interests, or psycho-social feelings arising from loss of social status (Hofstadter's thesis in Age of Reform).

McFarland also points out that the Mugwumps' history is suggestive as to the kind of strategy that political minorities should follow. "Are political minorities better off staying in the party and hoping to have some influence within it? Or should dissenters leave the party in an effort to purify it?" There is no satisfactory answer in McFarland's view.

He also notes that "the pressure group ethic" of emerging industrial America was distasteful to the Mugwumps. However, somewhat contradictorily, the Mugwumps were leaders in the movement to rationalize the professions. During the first two decades of the American Bar Association's existence (1878-1898) three Mugwumps served as its president, and Mugwumps were involved with early learned societies like the Modern Language Association.

The Mugwumps' interest in civil service reform was as much an interest in "purifying" government (p.10) as in providing better management. The editor of the Nation, EL Godkin, one of the most famous Mugwumps, called the election of New York City Mayor William L. Strong (sponsored by the Committee of Seventy, which included many Mugwumps) the "Triumph of Reform". You get a feel for the Mugwumps' cultural orientation in that Strong appointed Theodore Roosevelt police commissioner, and Roosevelt rigorously enforced Sunday blue laws prohibiting liquor sales, which enraged German immigrants and caused Strong to lose the next election. The Committee of 70's successor, the Citizens' Union, won the 1901 election when Seth Low, former mayor of Brooklyn and president of Columbia University, was elected New York City mayor.

The Mugwumps realized that the Citizens' Union could not defeat the Tammany Hall machine without the lower East Side ethnic vote. One can really see the origins of progressivism in this paragraph (p.12):

"With 'The City for the People!' as its slogan, the Union endorsed a wide range of measures on behalf of lower-class constituents: public baths and lavatories, improved tenement housing, more small parks in tenement districts and increased social services for the sick, destitute and aged. 'Mismanagement, favoritism and dishonesty must go," the Union's election handouts insisted. 'But this is not enough. We must have positive benefits for the people.' Sincere though it was, this bid for support from 'other' New Yorkers gave the gentlemen-led Union a mild case of campaign schizophrenia--Citizens' Union speakers promising downtown slum residents more services and uptown middle-class voters more economy. Yet the fusion of these two voting blocs was one of the Union's foremost goals and a crucial factor in Seth Low's 1901 victory."

The Mugwumps were the first limousine liberals! Some of the Mugwumps went on to become progressives, although I believe that McFarland overstates the percentage because he includes government reforms in the issues that he indexes to determine whether Mugwumps later became progressives. I think that he underestimates the power and importance of the Mugwumps' laissez faire philosophy. McFarland adds (p.14):

"The political and social reforms of the Cleveland Democrats in New England and the municipal reform programs of the Strong administration and the Citizens' Union campaigns in New York City were the chief signs that the Mugwumps were making practical concessions to urban-industrial conditions. The tools the genteel progressives applied were modernized ones, such as expert administration, centralized control and scientific investigation of social problems. Instead of morality, the new reform generation made progress its creed. Experts were its chief priesthood. There were orthodox underpinnings to these innovations, however, as reform still had a strong vein of old-fashioned elitism. Earlier the community's elite had reserved to itself the role of determining what was moral. Similarly, the new elite of experts claimed to have special credentials for interpreting what constituted progress. Granted, the progressive liberals actively sought to ameliorate the harsh impact of industrialism on lower-class Americans, but the reformers retained for themselves primary responsibility for deciding what the people needed.

"From a critical perspective today many aspects of both preindustrial Mugwump ideas and modern American liberalism are troubling. In pre-industrial United States the ranks of the 'best men' were restricted by class status and family connections. After modernization, limited access to high status was sustained by new, 'objectified', devices--intelligence tests, civil service examinations and educational credentials. Neither the old nor the new pattern was an absolutely closed system, but both, as is obvious now, seriously discriminated against Americans who started behind in the race for wealth and status."

Geoffrey T. Blodgett's contribution to the book, "The Mind of the Boston Mugwump" (p. 18) is a rich description of the Mugwumps' cultural and social world. Blodgett argues that in 1884 the Mugwumps' "dominating motive for their behavior was a desire to escape the status fitted for them by indulgent families, an eagerness to break loose from their role as passive heirs. This did not make them rebels against the New England past."

"Boston Mugwumps maintained a notably more genial temper than did their contemporaries in New York...The Bostonians looked to New York for inspiration...Godkin's Nation was their Bible...But years of dismal experience with Grant, Conkiling and Tammany Hall had played out the resilience in the New Yorkers..." (P.25)

"Immigration, urbanized politics and the rushing growth of protected industry had by the 1880s made town-meeting democracy almost a rural relic...Democracy had broken out of the stable framework in which New England had contained it. Now, to the Mugwump eye, it ran through her cities, crude, impetuous, without a memory. Unbridled democracy seemed to threaten not only private property but personal liberty and all the subtle authority which the town meeting had once assured the educated man of substance"(p.27).

Blodgett is a bit hard on the Mugwumps, though. No broad movement, even of educated people, is mostly composed of economics scholars or original thinkers. Somewhat condescendingly, Blodgett writes (p. 32):

"The Mugwumps looked on the economic and social problems of their era with well-meaning but uncreative conservatism. Their prime assumptions were absorbed at second-hand from the texts of Harvard's Francis Bowen, the pages of Godkin's Nation, the essays of William Graham Summer...Imprecise notions from Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer mingled in shadowy fashion in their minds."

but (p.33)

"The Mugwumps staked little claim to economic authority. Their main concern was with party politics...Mugwumpery was above all an escape from party. By breaking fixed rules of political behavior, the Mugwumps hoped to change them..."

and (p.36)

"the driving impetus toward civil service reform was the Mugwump desire to slash through the tangle of personal influence and responsibility that tied public office to the party system. The more exuberant theorists envisioned an ideal future government run by administrative technicians whose only loyalty was patriotism"

and (p. 36)

"their muddling confirmed them as political amateurs."

Ari Hoogenboom, a former Brooklyn College professor, contributes an excellent article entitled "Civil Service Reform and Public Morality" in which he attacks the common belief that the Gilded Age was all that corrupt (I would argue that the present day is more corrupt in terms of real dollars but less overtly so) and makes a useful point as to the reason for the emphasis of corruption in the Gilded Age (p. 42):

"The historian is usually liberal, more often than not a Democrat. He is hostile to big business, an advocate of government regulation, strong executive leadership and an expert civil service. The post-Civil War era stands for all the historian opposes. It was an era of Republicanism, big business power, ineffectual attempts at government regulation, weak executives and an essentially nonprofessional civil service."

As a result, while reformers of the Gilded Age exaggerated corruption, historians tend to repeat the accusations too uncritically (p.43).

In Hoogenboom's view, the Mugwumps wanted careers in government, but were foreclosed by the spoils system. Thus, they became enemies of the spoils system. He gives the example of Charles Eliot Norton, who was related to Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's president, and co-founded the Nation with E.L. Godkin. Norton believed that democracy contributed to "the unfortunate national 'decline of manners.'" When President Grant was elected, Norton hoped to be appointed as ambassador to Holland or Belgium, and when he was ignored, he concluded that Grant was under the control of the spoils system. Likewise, George William Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly, "was not opposed to the spoils system until it ceased to function satisfactorily for him and his friends." Lincoln had offered him an ambassadorship to Egypt, but postwar politicians (p. 46) "snubbed Curtis and his peers."

I don't find this argument entirely convincing, because the examples that Hoogenboom gives of Curtis's failure to win New York's senatorial nomination and failure on the Civil Service Commission are consistent with alternative interpretations, namely, that Curtis was not manipulative and found real-world politics to be distasteful. Hoogenboom also uses Henry Adams as an example, but again this example is not convincing of his point that the Mugwumps' interest in reform came from their lack of personal gain from Gilded Age politicians.

Hoogenboom argues that "The careers of Norton, Curtis and Henry Adams demonstrated that the civil service reform movement fitted a pattern of those out of power versus those in power...The civil service reformer's political impotence accurately reflected his loss of social and economic power. He was out of step with the rest of society..."

The last of the contributions about which I blog is McFarland's. I had previously blogged his book, but he has a slightly different take on his data here. McFarland argues that "I do not believe that displacement was the primary stimulus for the Mugwumps' reform efforts. As I will attempt to show in my conclusions, the Mugwumps' moral intensity and elitist feelings were in large part the outgrowth of their family tradition, educational background and professional status. Their familial, educational and professional experiences led them to feel a personal responsibility for the preservation of civic morality.

McFarland's data is interesting He complies a list of 396 Mugwumps and then traces their occupations viewable here.

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