Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Gilded Age Letters of E.L. Godkin

The Gilded Age Letters of E.L. Godkin. Edited by William M. Armstrong. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1974.

I have been perusing Godkin's letters and am a bit disappointed. A foreceful editor and an articulate writer, Godkin was as well self promoting and self serving. He seems to have been prone to deceiving others a bit in business affairs. Many of his letters involve fights in which he was engaged with investors in the Nation, notably George L. Stearns of Massachusetts, who thought that the Nation would represent the radical Republican position of the abolitionists (or at least Stearns's positions) postbellum. Also, there was a conflict because he told some investors in Philadelphia that he would not oppose (or rather take a position on) the tariff, when several of his investors opposed the tariff, and he had to navigate avoiding offense to either side, even though the tariff issue was an important one in that period. When Godkin ignored Stearns's and his associates' demands, there was more than a decade of ensuing belligerence.

When dealing with lesser known writers Godkin is often abrupt condescending (an exception, of course, is his enthusiasm for Hart Crane). But in a letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was on the Nation's editorial board but never contributed to it, Godkin was sycophantic and fawning.

Godkin's comments on race are distasteful by today's standards. Godkin himself was subject to prejudice because he was an immigrant from Ireland. As an Anglo-Protestant Godkin was welcome in Yankee upper class social circles. Nevertheless, one or more of his letters involve Godkin's furious responses to newspaper articles that attacked him on grounds of his foreign, Anglo-Irish national origin.

He was not the most open minded of his day about voting rights for the newly freed slaves, and in an April 13, 1865 letter to Charles Eliot Norton (pp. 26-8) expresses in distasteful language that blacks needed to prove their fitness to vote:

"The possession of the suffrage by anybody, black or white, is but a means to... ends. If the majority in the United States were to vote for the establishment of a despotism or a community of goods, I should feel as much bound to resist them sword in hand as I would a foreign invader...we would be justified in withholding the suffrage until we had satisfactory assurance that they would not abuse it...The objections to the plan are the same which lie against any theory of universal suffrage. I entirely agree with you and Mr. Lowell, however, as to the expediency of giving the blacks the franchise, but I hate logic in politics, and all I ask is that they be subjected to a test, which in their case ought, I think to be somewhat different from that imposed on the white man, for I think the latter also should submit to it."

Godkin advocates literacy tests for voting (for whites and blacks) and also a requirement that newly freed slaves work for a living for ten years to prove that they are morally fit before they be allowed to vote.

Godkin at several points says that he does not think that race is the issue but rather the newly freed slaves' moral and cognitive ability to handle the "fiduciary" duty of voting. This is insensitive at a minimum, but may not be racist. He had had identical concerns about white voters.

Similar points might be made about Godkin's attitude toward Jews. On June 20, 1889 Godkin wrote a letter to his wife mentioning that he had "lunched with (Ferdinand) Rothschild" and had called on "Miss de Rothschild". He also mentions that on June 18, 1897, Miss de Rothschild invited him to watch "the Jubilee from her windows in Picadilly"). In a letter to James Russell Lowell on October 22, 1868, he refers to a writer who worked for the Nation for twenty years, Michael Heilprin, as "our many-sided Jew" in reference to Heilprin's (in Lowell's opinion) "omniscience". In a letter of February 11, 1876 to Daniel Coit Gilman, president of Johns Hopkins University, Godkin called Heilprin "one of the most worthy and modest men I ever knew" and a "mine of facts" but declines to recommend him for a professorial post because "he is not a man with any great hold of principles or any great power of expression and is too shy for a teacher. But he is an excellent fellow..." On June 27, 1889 Godkin describes a meeting with "George Lewis, the famous attorney" with regard to a libel law suit by Oakey Hall, a writer and one-time mayor of New York, against his friend James Bryce. He describes Lewis as "a small, ferrety looking Jew, but has an extraordinary reputation here as a 'solicitor', especially in 'delicate cases'. He is probably consulted oftener I am told in blackmail cases which are very numerous here than all the other London lawyers put together..." On July 18, 1901, he wrote a letter to James Bryce in which he mentions Archibald Primrose Rosebery, 5th Earl of Rosebery and former Prime Minister of England, who had married Hannah Rothschild, heiress of Mayer de Rothschild. He says that "the best thing for him to do now is to live jauntily on his Jew money!"

The last remark can easily be interpreted as an off-color joke. Likewise, his failure to recommend Heilprin to a professorship seems to have been a result of Heilprin's personal characteristics, not his race or religion. Heilprin had been associated with the Nation for twenty years. Given the small number of Jews in New York in the 1860s, this hardly suggests prejudice. In the case of Lewis, his reference to Lewis as a "ferrety looking Jew" while suggestive of a degree of prejudice is not hardcore bigotry. The current left wing in the United States, such as Walt and Mearshimer, say worse things about Jews all the time. Given more than a century of history and bloodshed, today's left wingers might be said to be considerably more anti-Semitic than Godkin was, if he was at all.

As well, based on today's electorate, I'm not so sure that the 19th century's decision to permit unlimited democracy wasn't a mistake. I wonder if our political world would be better were voters required to be able to understand the New York Times and to have an economic stake such as a job, a pension or a home before they were permitted to vote.

That said, it would be more instructive to compare Godkin's views to those of trade union leaders before and after the Civil War than to critize Godkin and other Mugwumps (the genteel, educated Independent Republicans) on grounds of racism. I very much doubt that Godkin and the other Mugwumps were more racist than were the labor unionists. Rather, the truth is the opposite. What you will find in comparing the decisions of labor unions of the Gilded Age with the Mugwumps' positions is that the trade union leaders were more pro-slavery before the war and far more prejudiced during the period, to the extent of prohibiting blacks from belonging to trade unions altogether. Godkin never said that Blacks should be prohibited from voting. Rather he said that blacks as well as whites should be literate before they are permitted to vote. In contrast, many labor unions excluded blacks entirely from membership and also prohibited them from making a living using skills that they had already developed, preventing them from gaining the economic independence that Godkin emphasized. Perhaps he was hypocritical in not demanding greater protections for blacks (such as the proposed Force Act bill of the 1890s, which failed in Congress) but he never went so far in his prejudice as did the labor movement of that day.

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