I have just finished reading Philip Dru: Administrator, Edward M. House’s “Story of Tomorrow” from 1912, and while not a terribly good book, I think it’s a good description of what early 20th century Progressives — and those who followed them — wanted to and maybe still want to accomplish.
And how they view the world.
House himself (called “colonel” though he never served in the military and wasn’t from Kentucky) was a Texas politician from a wealthy cotton family and eventual advisor to Woodrow Wilson, and was one of the chief U.S. negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference that concocted and imposed the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles on Germany in the spring of 1919.
His vision of government, as set forth in Philip Dru, is what I call “Grand High Progessivism.” It is government by powerful, disinterested but rightly-guided and well-meaning experts. In the book, Dru is a West Point graduate of some renown who suffers a personal setback — he is temporarily blinded by a long desert hike in Mexico, leading to the end of his military career — that sets him on another path of social critic and commentator. Dru and his “beloved” Gloria (they do not marry until the end of the book, as Dru is married exclusively to his work) spend some time in a New York City tenement, and commit themselves to the betterment of humanity.
A powerful and wealth senator, Selwyn, uses his money and influence to get one Gov. Rockland elected president in order to preserve the interests of wealth. However, Selwyn accidentally records an interview between himself and Rockland on a dictaphone tube, which becomes public, and that sparks off the civil war. Dru leads the army of the western rebels, organized as they are against the undue influence of wealth, and in the Battle of Elma, not far from Buffalo (or Erie, Pennsylvania), defeat the government armies. President Rockland flees the country, Dru enters Washington, and then proceeds to rationally reorganize the government as an effective dictator.
“Administrator of the Republic” is his title, actually.
For House, wealth is the great problem that prevents the country from being efficiently and effectively governed.
Wealth had grown so strong, that the few were about to strangle the many, and among the great masses of the people, there was sullen and rebellious discontent.
The laborer in the cities, the producer on the farm, the merchant, the professional man and all save organized capital and its satellites, saw a gloomy and hopeless future.
House is not calling for “pure socialism,” an absolute equalization of wealth that would make it “not worth while to do more than the average,” in the words of Dru’s friend Jack Strawn. No, what House is calling for is less a material revolution than he is a moral revolution, as Dru replies:
I believe that mankind is awakening to the fact that material compensation is far less to be desired than spiritual compensation. This feeling will grow, it is growing, and when it comes to full fruition, the world will find little difficulty in attaining a certain measure of altruism.
We will be covered by a kinder, more altruistic, and more enlightened people, and in turn, because the stranglehold of wealth will be ended, the people will become more interested and involved in the affairs of government.
“When fear, hate, greed and the purely material conception of Life pass out,” said Philip, “as it some day may, and only wholesome thoughts will have a place in human minds, mental ills will take flight along with most of our bodily vill, and the miracle of the world’s redemption will have been largely wrought.”
It is a complex relationship portrayed here. We are held down from being our better selves by corrupt structures created by greedy people, but some people — a revolutionary vanguard, say, like Dru — will give of themselves, will arrive at that understanding first, and remake the world so that the rest of us may live there.
In the run up to the civil war, House notes something interesting. As Rockland plans his re-election, he focuses almost exclusively on the roughly 20,000 voters in 12 states who will determine the election, while his opponent squanders his resources on trying to convince millions of voters. And Rockland mobilizes early for war, though it doesn’t help him much.
The changes Dru ushers in with his new constitution are almost always written by five-member boards of experts, and it’s a full bottom-to-top rationalization of the country’s laws and politics. As with most progressive reforms, efficiency is the goal — corrupt government, government on behalf of moneyed interests, is costly government, and House promises a government that does a great deal more with much less. There are a lot of structural changes — a single, 10-year term for a ceremonial state president, investing most of the power in the House of Representatives, which would appoint an “executive” (really, a prime minister) to run the government, and lifetime tenure in the senate in exchange for being stripped of the power to originate legislation or vote on spending bills.
In addition, there are sweeping changes made to land ownership and tax laws, and all state constitutions look the same.
All of this sounds fine, I suppose, what you might make de novo if you could remake the country’s politics. I happen to believe we’d benefit from proportional representation and a parliamentary system, but that would only give us other problems.
House has the problems nearly all early 20th century progressives had. Among them is the racial and national hierarchy of virtue and ability, though even the benighted can achieve that virtue if properly tutored and governed. “In some states sixty per cent of the population were negroes, and they were as helpless as children and proved a heavy burden upon the forty per cent of whites,” House writes.
House is clearer about this when Dru turns his attention outside the United States, and especially to Latin America:
We of Western Europe and the United States have our own theories as to the functions of government, theories that perhaps you fail to appreciate, but we feel we must not only observe them ourselves, but try and persuade others to do likewise.
So begins progressive global evangelism about government.
By persuasion, House means war. At the Battle of La Tuna, Dru tells General Benevides, leader of the Mexican army,
“It is not our purpose to annex your country or any part of it, more shall we demand any indemnity as the result of victory further than the payment of the actual cost of the war and the maintenance of the American troops while order is being restored. But in the future, our flag is to be your flag, and you are to be directly under the protection of the United States. It is our purpose to give your people the benefits of the most enlightened educational system, so that they may become fitted for the responsibilities of self-government.
So, annexing your country is wrong, but invading you and changing your government, or even better, governing you directly, is perfectly okay. Because we cannot be seen to be gaining from the war. Dru is “liberating” Mexico from irrational ways of government (he promises land redistribution as well), not conquering it, and in a generation or two, Mexico will teem with people who “regard the battlefield of La Tuna as the birthplace of their redemption.”
Uh-huh, sure they will.
His work done after seven years as “Administrator of the Republic,” Dru steps down, Cincinnatus-like, marries Gloria, and leaves San Francisco in a steamship bound for distant exile. A truly selfless servant of the Republic, who wanted nothing for himself, and everything for the good of the people.
What’s the value of reading such a book? I confess to be a deep and almost militant anti-progressive. Twentieth-century progressivism was about selfless and scientific management, in the belief that management was both compassionate and efficient, and this usually meant treating people as things — inputs in economic and administrative processes. It’s that thingness I object deeply to, because once people become resources, they can be categorized, classified, utilized, bent, shaped, broken, or disposed of as needed.
However progressivism has morphed from a century ago, I believe at heart progressives still want a well-managed world in which people are cooperative and pliable things, mere objects and inputs. That without good government, we cannot be good people. And everyone, everywhere, seeks to be governed — and should be governed — as we are governed.