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The American College: A Breakwater against Plutocracy.

An Address Delivered at Hobart College, Commencement Day, June 21st, 1899.

By William Reed Huntington.

Geneva, New York: The College, 1899.

The amazing increase in the wealth of the United States, which these times are witnessing, is not only an irritation to the foreigner; it has actually begun to stir misgivings in the mind of the native. Who shall save us from the plutocrats? is a question which many Americans, who love not Bryan, and who disclaim any slightest sympathy with communism, are to-day anxiously putting to themselves and to each other.

Animated solely by a spirit of patriotic solicitude for the well-being of the Republic, they are laboring to find out what it will mean to have this country become, as in point of fact it is rapidly becoming, the wealthiest of all lands.

I conceive that for a gathering of college men in the penultimate year of this swiftly passing century, no topic could be more significant or better timed. Is any terrible calamity awaiting us because of the increase of our goods, and, if such peril really threatens, how may it most surely be averted?

To the former of these two questions the only answer possible is: “That depends.” That a nation, on general principles, is even more likely to die of surfeit than to die of famine is a fact in ethnic physiology quite as well known before Kipling set England's Recessional to music, as since. It is one of the commonplaces of history. The tendency of wealth is to beget luxury, and the effect of luxury upon both the nerves and the muscles of the body politic is relaxing. On the other hand, it is quite Conceivable that there may be uses of wealth, the effect of which, if tried, would be tonic and antiseptic rather than the Opposite; methods of investing capital positively conducive to the public health.

You will, therefore, not expect of me, in my brief handling of this question, any cheap and wholesale denunciation of the so-called money-power, as if that were the one and only menace to the safety of the State. We have enough of such flimsy oratory, and from the ministers of religion, as I venture to think, rather too much. Probably nowhere in the World is wealth more wisely used for the public Welfare than in the United States. And this holds true not merely of gifts and benefactions, but of all well-considered bona fide investments. It is a mistake, and a harmful one, to insist that the millionaires are doing no good with their money, except when they are giving it away. Wealth accomplishes its best work when devoted to the purpose of keeping the wheels of industry in motion. The purchasers of stocks and bonds are not as those who hide gold in a stocking. On the contrary, what they do serves to put bread into countless mouths. In every community a certain percentage of the people have to be tugged along, so to say, by main force, because of infirmity; and, for this reason, a relief fund is a necessary adjunct of civilization; but the lower the poor rate can be kept, the better both for the helpers and the helped. Some years ago General Booth, of the Salvation Army, startled the world of the charitably disposed with his story of what he called “The submerged tenth.” The fact that this fraction, one-tenth, exactly corresponds with the proportion of a man's goods, which, under the usage of the old Hebrew commonwealth, had to be turned every year as “tithe” into the treasury of God, is most interesting; for it suggests that what society must expect to give away in the form of out-and-out gratuity, in order to keep all of its members upon their feet, is of the nature of a constant quantity. In other words, hospitals, asylums, almshouses, and all similar provisions for the helpless, are to be accounted what the financiers call a “fixed charge” upon the income of society, the payment of which, at a just appraisal, leaves the rest of time wealth of the community available for other purposes. It all of our capitalists were suddenly, and by common consent, to take the line of St. Francis of Assisi, we should be in a bad way. The Mills Hotel, in the City of New York, with its 1,500 beds, counts as an investment, not as a charity; and yet the millionaire who built it, and maintains it, is justly reckoned a public benefactor. Who can doubt that he is doing the submerged tenth an infinitely greater service, through his wise investment, than if he were to stand on a street corner doling out, in equal portions, to all applicants, his money, now “tied-up,” as the misleading phrase has it, in his hotel?

I am committing myself thus unequivocally to the side of capital, as against those who can see nothing but wickedness in it, in order that I may run the less risk of being misunderstood in what I shall presently make bold to say about plutocracy.

It does not follow, because the accumulation of material wealth is a legitimate pursuit, and of itself conducive to the public good, that therefore what we know as social influence should be exclusively, or even mainly, wielded by those who happen to have been born with a natural gift for money-making. It is right that this gift should count for what it is worth, but not right that it should outweigh, in public estimation, all other gifts; one talent overbalancing nine.


American society is to-day feeling nervously about for some standard by which to gauge itself. No community, however democratic it may fancy itself to be, can get along, permanently, without some common agreement as to What makes excellence. Even though the standard be only that of a man's ability to pummel and be pummelled, a sorting and grading of society there must inevitably be, into "heavy-weights," "middle-weights," and "feather-weights." Order the political constitution of a country as you may, make it as democratic as it can possibly be made, there still has to be reckoned with, a certain social law of gravitation by virtue of which some come to the top. The anxious question here in the United States is, Which "some" shall it be? Who shall lead? We find it easy to smile at the goings-on of our "smart set," and to invent for its members armorial bearings more congruous with the facts in the case than those which have found their way, despite the prejudices of a cold-hearted Heralds' College, to carriage-panel, harness-mountings and notepaper; but what have we better to show? If these be not the custodians of society's standard weights and measures, who are? The President and his Cabinet, do you reply; the governors of the several States; the judges of our higher courts; and the officers of the army and navy? Yes; but these are too few in number for our purpose, and, in the case of some of them, there is the element of impermanency.

Very well, then, you go on to tell me, there are the various patriotic orders, which, of recent years, have sprung into such noteworthy prominence—Sons and Daughters of the Revolution; Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution; Colonial Dames; Societies of the Old French Wars, Mayflower Societies, Huguenot Societies, and such like. Now, doubtless, these are worth something as a temporary breakwater against plutocracy, seeing that they rest upon historical facts of a former generation, which nothing can alter or disturb:

"Not heaven itself upon the past hath power;"

but even in the case of these there are vague rumors that genealogy of itself alone does not suffice, and that there must be, at least, a modicum of gold in the blood, besides the required grain of iron, if everything is to run smoothly.

But seriously, there is little hope of our being able to establish an hereditary aristocracy in America, no matter how hard we try. It is altogether too late in the day for anything of that sort. Family can be made to count for a great deal, as certainly it ought to do; but, in a land where primogeniture has been abolished, it is impossible that it should count for everything. Here in America it is only the first and second, or, at the furthest, the third generation that can call the lands after their own names. A deck voyage on a North River steamboat, from New York to Albany, would convince the most sceptical upon this point. The brewers have ousted the patrons. Even in monarchial Europe the difference recognized between the English nobility, and that of countries where a looser law of succession to title prevails, is very marked. The old story, common, I believe, to both the American and the English navies, of the blue-jacket who had happened to see an accident befall a highly decorated Neapolitan nobleman, just then visiting the ship in company with others of his class, and who stepped up to the officer of the deck with the remark: "Please, sir, one of them kings has fell down the hatchway" illustrates the contempt into which a landed aristocracy, without land enough to go around, may fall. Territorial titles, without ancestral acres back of them, are null. To be able to prove descent from a line of honest forbears, who, for a hundred years, more or less, have contrived to keep their heads above water, and have left record of the fact in the family Bible, must always be to a man's credit; but, if that is the whole of it, and the laws of the land confer no special privilege upon those who can make such a showing, your family Bible will, in the long run, scarcely hold its own against some scandalously new-looking ledger as a patent of nobility.

But, if we indignantly protest against an aristocracy of wealth, and are constrained to despair of an aristocracy of birth as practically impossible, what is there left for us to fall back upon? Who shall safeguard what I have called the standard weights and measures of social life? That these standards need safeguarding, there can be no question. It is a thing intolerable that public opinion, with respect to first principles of decent living, should be allowed to drift aimlessly and helplessly along, with no guidance, no leadership, no semblance of control. Whither are we to look for that aristocracy which shall be strong enough, clear-eyed enough and sufficiently widespread over the surface of the land to be able to check degeneracy everywhere, and to ward off the forces of dissolution?


The only safe and sure ground to take is that we have such an aristocracy already, and that it consists of those who are, as a matter of fact, our best people; best as respects intelligence, best as respects manners, best as respects conduct. Into this aristocracy nothing can give entrance save real excellence. Even of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters in the same household, "one shall be taken and another left." It is, indeed, a sort of Church invisible, to which only the elect have access. The badge of membership, though inconspicuous, is always recognizable, and there are tones of voice which necessarily betray the outsider. No noisy vulgarian can force his way in, no, not even though he daily eat off a gold plate and have a palace car all to himself. Gentle traits, and such only, are accepted as the sufficient evidence of gentle blood, and no boldness in breaking the Commandments is ever held to constitute a man a hero or a woman a heroine.

Such is the conception of an aristocracy that we, in America, in the face of many difficulties, and of much discouragement, are laboring to work out. It is, of course, open to the criticism that it supposes a very fluctuating body of nobles and gentry, not easily listed, a peerage that would drive Burke and Debrett mad.

To an aristocracy of the sort described, an aristocracy in which are to concentre intelligence, ability, good manners and good taste, the college ought to be the main feeder. That is why, for this platform, and for this day, I made bold to select this theme. I say the college ought to be the main feeder, for I do not forget, nor do I undervalue the other sources from which inflow may fairly be expected. Such a man as the late president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a graduate of the work-shops (and I name him simply as the type of a class), was a sufficient evidence that American society need never be beholden, exclusively, to the colleges for its best. Neither would I, while thus magnifying the colleges, seem to exaggerate the value of intellectuality as a social power. In the restricted world of letters, scholarship, pure and simple, may properly enough take and keep the lead, but, in the larger world of society, other elements have to be taken into account. The Chinese Empire is governed by its literati, but the British Empire is not. Our frontier statesman was not wholly wrong in his famous fling at the "litery fellers." A government with an Amiel for Prime Minister and a Walter Pater for Chancellor of the Exchequer would speedily go upon the rocks. But it is the glory of the American, as it has for many generations been the glory of the English college, that it produces not so much the specialist as "the all-round man."

Russell Lowell's delicious definition of a University as "a place where nothing useful is taught" has in it that tincture of truth which guarantees it an earthly immortality. It is a great thing to have in the community a class of men with whom utility, as commonly understood, is not the only measure of value. At a marvelously interesting exhibition of liquid air, which I had the privilege of attending not long since, I was disgusted by hearing the question whispered about, under their breath, by the onlookers, the moment the first glow of astonishment had passed: "But, after all, what is the use of it?" As if seeing the supposed impossible become the actual were not enough; as if knowledge were not in and of itself its own exceeding great reward.

The specialists, with their zeal for knowing everything about something, miss the delight of knowing something about everything.

"I am looking," said an ardent biologist, "for a young man of promise, who will agree to devote his life to a study of the parasites of the snail." That sort of a man, when found, is no doubt useful; but that is not the sort of man which our American colleges undertake to fashion and send forth. The American college best fulfill its function as the purveyor of strong and sane leadership to American society, when it labors to develop willpower and to cultivate the heart-traits, besides equipping the intelligence. With such an end in view, it matters comparatively little whether a college be numerically strong or weak; whether it be in the county or in the city; whether its dormitories have "hot and cold water laid on," or, as was the case at Harvard in my day, the students are expected to fill their buckets from a common pump; whether its athletes disport themselves in "a $300,000 gymnasium," or in the open air. These are mere matters of detail, of accident, of circumstance. The main point is that the college should accomplish its high task of moulding the man who is to help mould society. Sparta was no great city, as far as population went; in the census of Greece it cut but an inconsiderable figure; nevertheless, the saying has passed into a proverb,

"At Sparta wast thou born.
Be Sparta's ornament."

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