November 5, 2022

1. “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur”

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) was born into an upper-middle-class family in 1896. He was named after Francis Scott Key, a distant relative. His mother’s family was from Ireland and had money; his father’s family was from Maryland and had class. Maryland had long been associated with Catholicism; both Fitzgerald’s parents were Catholic.

In the first five years of his life, Fitzgerald was the only child in the house. One Fitzgerald biographer says that his mother

had spoiled him so badly that with other boys he showed off and bragged and belittled and was desperately unpopular.... At St. Paul Academy he was known as the freshest boy in school. “If anybody can poison Scotty or stop his mouth in some way, the school at large and myself will be obliged,” a letter in the school paper observed.... [Fitzgerald wrote about] his prep school unpopularity in “The Freshest Boy” (1928), the most moving of the Basil Duke Lee stories.1

Fitzgerald spent part of his childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, part in Buffalo, New York. He went to several Catholic schools, including “the Newman School... in Hackensack, New Jersey. At Newman, Father Sigourney Fay recognized his literary potential and encouraged him to become a writer.”2 Fitzgerald dedicated his first novel to Sigourney Fay.

Fitzgerald entered Princeton in 1913. He was “one of the few Catholics in the student body.”3 He failed math and science classes. His favorite class was English, but he felt that his English professors didn’t understand poetry. “I got in a series of scraps with them,” he later told his daughter, “so that I finally dropped English altogether.” Fitzgerald joined a social club, and a theater club, and he wrote lyrics for musicals.

Fitzgerald was particularly fond of football. In a story called “The Bowl,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I reveled in football, as audience, amateur statistician and foiled participant — for I had played in prep school.” As a freshman, he tried out for the football team, hoping to recapture his prep-school glory, but he was skinny, and didn’t make the first cut.

Fitzgerald “formed close friendships with classmates Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, both of whom would later aid his literary career. Determined to be a successful writer, Fitzgerald wrote stories and poems for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Princeton Tiger, and the Nassau Lit.” Fitzgerald read novelists from the previous generation, such as H. G. Wells and Compton Mackenzie; both Wells and Mackenzie influenced his early work.

Fitzgerald also read Keats. He was drawn to Keats “for his richness of language.... Fitzgerald read and reread Keats, memorized passages. He wrote Keatsian poems and turned them into evocative prose for This Side of Paradise. As early as his college years he imagined that he too had tuberculosis and would die young.”

At Princeton, Fitzgerald was socially and economically inferior to the WASP elite. He described his mother’s family as “straight 1850 potato famine Irish.” But he thought that this inferiority might be an asset; the elite came from old families, families that might be somewhat complacent, somewhat decadent. Fitzgerald described the elite as,

the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger. Yet in acknowledging to himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang.3B

One of the salient facts of American history is the decline of the WASP elite. Perhaps we can explain this decline by saying that immigrant families were rough and strong, elite families complacent and decadent.

In his later life, Fitzgerald remained fascinated by Princeton. In 1927, he wrote, “Looking back over a decade one sees the ideal of a university become a myth, a vision, a meadow lark among the smoke stacks.... [One seeks in vain] for any corner of the republic that preserves so much of what is fair, gracious, charming and honorable in American life.” When he died of a heart attack in 1940, he was reading the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton to join the Army; he never graduated. The U.S. was entering World War I; young men were dreaming of military glory. Also, he had been spurned by the girl he loved, Ginevra King. Wikipedia says “he hoped to die in combat.”

Wikipedia says that Ginevra was the inspiration for several Fitzgerald characters, including Daisy Buchanan. “As a parting gift before their relationship ended, Ginevra... wrote a story that she sent to Fitzgerald. In her story, she is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wealthy man yet still pines for Fitzgerald, a former lover from her past. The lovers are reunited only after Fitzgerald has attained enough money to take her away from her adulterous husband.” So Ginevra’s story contained the kernel of The Great Gatsby, and was surely the source of Gatsby.4

As a soldier in 1917, Fitzgerald was stationed near Montgomery, Alabama. “At a country club, Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, a 17-year-old Southern belle and the affluent granddaughter of a Confederate senator whose extended family owned the White House of the Confederacy.” Fitzgerald and Zelda became engaged, though one suspects that Fitzgerald’s real love was Ginevra.

In June 1919, Zelda broke off their engagement, probably because Fitzgerald had little money. Fitzgerald was then living in New York City. “Fitzgerald felt defeated and rudderless: two women had rejected him in succession; he detested his advertising job; his stories failed to sell; he couldn’t afford new clothes, and his future seemed bleak.... Fitzgerald publicly threatened to jump to his death from a window ledge of the Yale Club, and he carried a revolver daily while contemplating suicide.”

While he was in the army, Fitzgerald had written a novel called The Romantic Egotist. Though it was rejected by Scribner’s, the reader at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, was somewhat encouraging. Perkins “praised Fitzgerald’s writing and encouraged him to re-submit it after further revisions.”5

In July 1919, “Fitzgerald quit his advertising job and returned to St. Paul. Having returned to his hometown as a failure, Fitzgerald became a social recluse and lived on the top floor of his parents’ home.... He decided to make one last attempt to become a novelist and to stake everything on the success or failure of a book. Abstaining from alcohol and parties, he worked day and night to revise The Romantic Egotist as This Side of Paradise — an autobiographical account of his Princeton years and his romances....

“While revising his novel, Fitzgerald took a job repairing car roofs at the Northern Pacific Shops in St. Paul. One evening in the fall of 1919, after an exhausted Fitzgerald had returned home from work, the postman rang and delivered a telegram from Scribner’s announcing that his revised manuscript had been accepted for publication. Upon reading the telegram, an ecstatic Fitzgerald ran down the streets of St. Paul and flagged down random automobiles to share the news.

“Fitzgerald’s debut novel appeared in bookstores on March 26, 1920 and became an instant success. This Side of Paradise sold approximately 40,000 copies in the first year. Within months of its publication, his debut novel became a cultural sensation in the United States, and F. Scott Fitzgerald became a household name. Critics such as H. L. Mencken hailed the work as the best American novel of the year, and newspaper columnists described the work as the first realistic American college novel.... Magazines now accepted his previously rejected stories, and The Saturday Evening Post published his story ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ with his name on its May 1920 cover.”6

After the success of This Side of Paradise, Zelda decided she wanted to marry Fitzgerald after all. When they were married in 1920,

Fitzgerald claimed neither he nor Zelda still loved each other.... “I wouldn’t care if she died [Fitzgerald told a friend], but I couldn’t stand to have anybody else marry her” ....Alcohol increasingly fueled the Fitzgeralds’ social life, and the couple consumed gin-and-fruit concoctions at every outing. Publicly, their alcohol intake meant little more than napping at parties, but privately it led to bitter quarrels. As their quarrels worsened, the couple accused each other of marital infidelities. They remarked to friends that their marriage would not last much longer.

They had one child, a girl called Scottie, who became a journalist. It wasn’t a good marriage. They spent too much money, drank too much, partied too much. It was as if Fitzgerald wasn’t aiming for a good life, but rather for a life that would make a lively story. One might say that Scott and Zelda were living an unreal life.

Reality, however, eventually caught up with them, in the form of health problems, psychological problems, financial problems, etc. In 1934, H. L. Mencken wrote in his diary, “The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”7 Fitzgerald had hit bottom.

How did Fitzgerald cope with this? He wrote about it. He published an essay called “The Crack-Up,” which was followed by two similar essays. These three essays were collected (with various other material) in a volume called The Crack-Up, which was published after his death.

After he died, Zelda saw his virtues more clearly: “He was as spiritually generous a soul as ever was,” she wrote a friend. “It seems as if he was always planning happiness for Scottie and for me. Books to read — places to go. Life seemed so promising always when he was around.... Scott was the best friend a person could have.”

* * * * *

Fitzgerald’s novels didn’t sell well, with the exception of his first novel; in the last year of his life, he earned $13.13 in royalties.8 His short stories, however, brought him a substantial income. Now the situation is reversed: his novels sell briskly, his stories are often overlooked.

A leading Fitzgerald scholar, Matthew Bruccoli, writes, “During his lifetime Fitzgerald was far better known and more widely read as a short-story writer than as a novelist.”9 Fitzgerald published 65 stories in the Saturday Evening Post, which paid him as much as $4,000 per story, about $60,000 in today’s dollars.

But his ability to write and sell short-stories gradually dried up. In the last year of his life, Fitzgerald wrote to Zelda, who was then in an asylum with psychological problems: “My old talent for the short story vanished.... I got my public with stories of young love,” but he could no longer relate to young love. Stories of young love, which resonated in the 1920s, seemed out of place in the 1930s, a time of depression and war.

The Fitzgerald revival started soon after his death. The Great Gatsby was given to American soldiers serving overseas, and the Red Cross gave it to American POWs. “By 1945, over 123,000 copies of The Great Gatsby had been distributed among U.S. troops.”10

2. Karl Polanyi

I read a Fitzgerald story called “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” It’s about a young student, John Unger, who visits a classmate, Percy Washington, at his home in Montana during the summer (Fitzgerald himself made a similar visit when he was halfway through Princeton). Young love figures prominently in the story; John falls for Percy’s sister:

He saw a girl coming toward him over the grass. She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. She was dressed in a white little gown that came just below her knees.... Her pink bare feet scattered the dew before them as she came. She was younger than John — not more than sixteen.

The Washington family is fabulously wealthy because Percy’s grandfather, Fitz-Norman Washington, found an enormous diamond, “a diamond as big as the Ritz.” Fitz-Norman

had estimated that the diamond in the mountain was approximately equal in quantity to all the rest of the diamonds known to exist in the world. There was no valuing it by any regular computation, however, for it was one solid diamond — and if it were offered for sale not only would the bottom fall out of the market, but also... there would not be enough gold in the world to buy a tenth part of it. And what could anyone do with a diamond that size? It was an amazing predicament. He was, in one sense, the richest man that ever lived — and yet was he worth anything at all? If his secret should transpire there was no telling to what measures the Government might resort in order to prevent a panic, in gold as well as in jewels. They might take over the claim immediately and institute a monopoly. There was no alternative — he must market his mountain in secret.

As you can see from this passage, it’s a wild story; one can’t believe in the plot or the characters. Fitzgerald fails to achieve “suspension of disbelief.”

I read an essay by Richard Godden called “A Diamond Bigger Than the Ritz: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Gold Standard.” Godden’s specialty is the intersection of literature and economics. Godden’s prose is thorny and obscure; he’s fond of jargon from economics. Godden’s essay was published in 2010. One should never read literary criticism written after 1980 — it’s not intended for the general reader, and the prose is obscure.

I must admit, though, that I learned something from Godden’s essay, I learned about economists such as Karl Polanyi. Polanyi was born into a distinguished Jewish family; he was born in Vienna, grew up in Budapest, then returned to Vienna after World War I. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Polanyi left Austria, spent several years in London, then lived in the U.S. and Canada, while teaching at Bennington and Columbia.

Polanyi was critical of the Austrian School of economics, skeptical of laissez-faire economics, and sympathetic toward Christian socialism and Fabian socialism. The Austrian School emphasized the abstract individual, Polanyi sees the individual within a social and cultural milieu, hence Polanyi is sometimes called an “economic anthropologist”; Polanyi draws on the research of anthropologists like Malinowski. In Polanyi’s view, “man’s economy [is] submerged in his social relationships.”11 Godden writes,

Karl Polanyi... describes “belief in the Gold Standard” during the twenties as “the faith of the age,” adding that since, in the modern economy, “currency had become the pivot of national politics... nobody could fail to experience the daily shrinking or expanding of the financial yardstick; populations became currency conscious; the effect of inflation on real income was discounted in advance by the masses; men and women everywhere appeared to regard stable money as the supreme need of human society.” Such “faith” rested on the assumption, Polanyi argues, “that bank notes have value because they represent gold”: “Whether gold itself has value for the reason that it embodies labor, as the socialists held, or for the reason that it is useful and scarce, as the orthodox doctrine ran, made no difference.”

After World War I, all political leaders needed to stabilize the currency: “Faced with immediate postwar inflation, the need to restore a country’s currency via gold, so that that country might trade, repay loans or pay reparations, was shared by Herbert Hoover, Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini.”12

Polanyi is best known for The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), which he wrote in English. Polanyi argues that the modern market society represents a “great transformation” from traditional society. In a traditional society, economic activity is based on

  1. Householding (individual households work to meet their own needs)
  2. Reciprocity (I help you build a barn, you help me build a barn; “On a macro level, this would include the production of goods to gift to other groups”13)
  3. Redistribution (“trade and production is focused to a central entity such as a tribal leader or feudal lord and then redistributed to members of their society”)
In traditional society, everyone loaned and everyone borrowed, but in the new market society, debt (overdue debt) is a crime, and debtors are imprisoned. In traditional society, there are common lands, grazing lands, but in the market society, these common lands are replaced by “enclosures,” i.e., private lands enclosed by fences. So land and labor are “sold on the market at market-determined prices instead of allocated according to tradition, redistribution, or reciprocity.”14 This is a “great transformation” because “it was both a change of human institutions and human nature.”

Is socialism the natural state, the original state? The market society is a new development, “laissez-faire was planned... social protectionism was a spontaneous reaction to the social dislocation imposed by an unrestrained free market.”15 The new market society of modern times has brought great wealth, but at what cost? Polanyi says we’re seeing a double movement: the spread of a market society, and a movement to protect people from the market. Our best hope, Polanyi argues, is some sort of socialism, some sort of buffer against the excesses of a free market.

* * * * *

So Polanyi believes that wealth is only valuable if it makes people’s lives better. He would have agreed with Ruskin’s remark, “There is no wealth but life.” David Brooks made a similar argument in a recent NewYorkTimes column:

Each year Gallup surveys roughly 150,000 people in over 140 countries about their emotional lives. Experiences of negative emotions — related to stress, sadness, anger, worry and physical pain — hit a record high last year.

Places like China and India have gotten much richer. But development does not necessarily lead to gains in well-being, in part because development is often accompanied by widening inequality.... We conventionally use G.D.P. and other material measures to evaluate how nations are doing. But these are often deeply flawed measures of how actual people are experiencing their lives.

James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But that’s too narrow. Often it’s human flourishing, stupid, including community cohesion, a sense of being respected, social connection.

* * * * *

Godden discusses the importance of the Gold Standard in the new market society:

Exponents of the liberal market needed a device whereby people of different nations might freely trade with one another, confident that monies so earned (whatever their currency) would be “as good as gold.” The International Gold Standard, widely adopted by the 1870s, and rendering currencies commensurate via a golden mean, was that device — for Polanyi, “an extraordinary intellectual achievement.” Confidence, on the back of gold, ensured that labor and land (or all things manufactured and grown), might increasingly be viewed not (in the case of labor) as an activity inseparable from life, or (in the case of land) as a gift of geography and history, but as prices-in-waiting, or profits to be made in the global marketplace. Gold [was,] however, subject to what Polanyi describes as “double movement”: “While the organization of world commodity markets, world capital markets and world currency markets under the aegis of the Gold Standard gave an unparalleled momentum to the mechanisms of markets, a deep-seated movement sprang into being to resist the pernicious effects of a market controlled economy.”

Since the Gold Standard was the keystone of the market society, the Gold Standard was the target of many critics, such as William Jennings Bryan. Polanyi would probably have agreed with Bryan, and Polanyi supported Britain’s decision in 1931 to abandon the Gold Standard. When Britain abandoned gold, the British pound immediately lost 25% of its exchange value. Polanyi “argues that Britain went off the gold standard due to pressures from labor, which had grown stronger over time. Labor opposed the gold standard because maintaining it meant that the British government had to implement austerity.”16

Polanyi was a critic of the free market, as Hayek was a champion of the free market. Polanyi compares the free market to primitive and traditional societies; he says the free market produces wealth, but also solitude and stress. Hayek compares the free market to a centrally-planned economy, such as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China; Hayek says the planned economy produces poverty, a loss of freedom, a form of “serfdom.” Is it possible to have the cooperation and community of traditional society, while leaving room for freedom and individuality?

We saw above that the Washington family had a huge diamond, but couldn’t do much with it. Godden says that the U.S. was in a similar position after World War I: it possessed much of the world’s gold, but gold sitting in a vault is of little use. Godden writes,

The United States emerged from the First World War with a great capital surplus and owning much of the world’s gold. To sell abroad it had to transfer wealth to potential buyers. From 1921, the government encouraged private overseas loans as a way of recycling cash for the purchase of U.S. exports. As a result, between 1924 and 1929, 80% of the capital borrowed by German credit institutions came from American banks.

Fitzgerald describes how the first Washington, Fitz-Norman, used his wealth to buy “rare minerals,” which he deposited in various banks around the world. Fitz-Norman’s son, Braddock, carried this a step further: “The minerals were converted into the rarest of all elements — radium — so that the equivalent of a billion dollars in gold could be placed in a receptacle no bigger than a cigar box.” In 1922, when Fitzgerald wrote the story, it was suspected that radium might be unsafe. “In 1904,” Godden writes, “Clarence Dally, glassblower and laboratory employee in Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, died as a result of long-term exposure to radiation poisoning.” In the same year, “Edison discontinued experiments on the commercial potential of radium as a source of light.”

At the end of Fitzgerald’s story, Braddock Washington detonates the diamond mountain, killing everyone at the estate except John Unger and Percy’s two sisters. Godden calls the explosion a “prefiguration of the Crash of ’29.” Perhaps it’s also a prefiguration of the use of radioactive material as an explosive. So “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is a rather dark and pessimistic story.

Jeffrey Hart divides Fitzgerald’s work into three periods:

  1. his early period, when he aims to “bring out a meaning in life.... Write biographical novels with a burst of ideas toward the close”17; example: This Side of Paradise
  2. his second period, the “ironical pessimistic,” emphasizing “the meaninglessness of life”; example: The Beautiful and Damned (1922); Hart says that The Beautiful and Damned is spoiled by its “heaviness and pessimism”
  3. his third period, which is his best period, when he’s inspired by Conrad; example: The Great Gatsby (1925); in Gatsby, Fitzgerald manages to achieve a certain objectivity, a certain detachment

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” exemplifies Fitzgerald’s second period, his pessimistic period. According to Matthew Bruccoli, “The meaning of ‘Diamond’ is sufficiently clear: Absolute wealth corrupts absolutely and possesses its possessors.”18 The story may contain images that an economist would find interesting, but I think it’s a second-rate story nonetheless.

3. Lincoln Reconsidered

A. War Strategy

I started a book called Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, by David Herbert Donald. It’s a classic in the field, and Donald’s reputation is sky-high. Lincoln Reconsidered was a text in my 11th-grade history class. After reading the first paragraph, it was obvious that Donald wrote excellent prose. His argument is easy to follow, and he doesn’t waste any words.

Donald was a literary man who ended up in the History Department. Only someone interested in literature would write a biography of the novelist Thomas Wolfe (Donald’s biography, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988). Donald was friends with literary people like Gore Vidal.

The only weakness of Lincoln Reconsidered is that it’s not a primary source, so it doesn’t take you to the battlefield, you don’t hear the camp music and the marching soldiers. Should 11th-grade students read primary sources or secondary sources? I think primary sources are preferable, though secondary sources have much to offer, too. Not surprisingly, Donald himself was a fan of primary sources, and he edited several volumes of primary sources, such as the diary of Salmon Chase, and the diary of Charles Francis Adams.

Lincoln Reconsidered is a collection of essays, and the essays can be read in any order. I began with an essay called “Refighting the Civil War.” It says that officers on both sides studied a French writer, Jomini, who had fought in the Napoleonic wars, and wrote about all aspects of war. “Many a Civil War general went into battle with a sword in one hand and Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War in the other.”19 Nowadays Clausewitz, not Jomini, is regarded as the supreme authority on war, but during the Civil War era, Clausewitz was rarely read.

Jomini’s experience of war preceded the development of the rifle, the railroad, etc., so it’s questionable whether his advice was useful. For Jomini, war was about the bayonet charge and the cavalry charge, but the advent of the rifle made such charges all-but-impossible. “Frontal attacks became unprofitable, and, ‘generally speaking, nine assaults out of every ten failed.’ Gettysburg and Cold Harbor are two grim reminders of the power of the rifle.”20

Jomini said, Stay on the offensive, Don’t dig trenches, but CivilWar generals learned to do the opposite. Lee’s soldiers dubbed him The King of Spades.

Jomini said war was for professional armies — leave the people out of it. Following Jomini, McClellan told Lincoln that “the war must not be waged for ‘the subjugation of the peoples of any State’ and protested against ‘confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery.’” But the Union eventually pursued the un-Jomini strategy of total war. After Sheridan rampaged through the Shenandoah Valley, he said there was so little food left at the farms that, if a crow flew over the Valley, it would need to carry its own provisions.

So Union generals, together with Lincoln, developed a new approach to war, under the pressure of their early defeats. Confederate generals, on the other hand, were encouraged by their early victories, and kept pursuing the same strategy. Confederates were conservative rather than innovative; Donald says the Confederacy was “a conservative revolt in that the South would not accept the nineteenth century.”21

If Jomini’s advice was, at least in part, useless, then those who studied him were at a disadvantage. Grant didn’t read Jomini, and surely Forrest didn’t either. Grant said, “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him hard as you can, and keep moving on.” This is an example of the limitations of book-learning; experience and intuition are often better teachers than books.

B. Lincoln’s Policy of No Policy

Another essay in Lincoln Reconsidered is called “Abraham Lincoln and the American Pragmatic Tradition.” Donald argues that Lincoln was passive, Lincoln let himself be guided by events. This view of Lincoln is unpopular, and probably led to criticism of Donald’s Lincoln biography. I’m a fan of Donald’s thesis, and discussed it in an earlier issue.

Discussing Reconstruction, Donald says that Lincoln had no theory, no formula, no plan for bringing Southern states back into the Union. Lincoln said that any “exclusive and inflexible plan would surely become a new entanglement.” Lincoln had “one reconstruction program for Louisiana, another for Virginia, and yet another for Tennessee.”

Lincoln dealt with problems as they arose, and not before. “The pilots on our Western rivers,” he said, “steer from point to point as they call it — setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see, and that is all I propose to myself.” He didn’t try to follow the Constitution or abstract principles or even his own prior words. “As bad promises are better broken than kept,” he said, “I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest.”22

One might compare Lincoln’s pragmatic approach to Reconstruction with his approach to military strategy. Lincoln managed the war effort without reference to abstract principles or established authorities (like Jomini). Lincoln tried various generals, and when he found an effective general, he gave him broad authority. Lincoln put his faith in experience, not reason or authority or books.

As Donald puts it, “Lincoln knew that there were limits to rational human activity.” Donald says that Lincoln possessed Keats’ “Negative Capability,” i.e., the ability to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” There’s a deep wisdom in Lincoln’s approach. But academics love reason, and they use “rational” as a term of high praise, so they were uncomfortable with Donald’s thesis. Donald’s biography of Lincoln didn’t win the awards that his other biographies won.

C. Logic on Fire:
Abolitionism in the 1830s

One of the essays in Lincoln Reconsidered is called “Toward a Reconsideration of Abolitionists.” Donald says that abolitionism began in the 1830s, when various reform movements arose — “prohibition; prison reform; education for the blind, deaf, dumb; world peace; penny postage; women’s rights; and a score of lesser and more eccentric drives.” The 1830s are sometimes called “freedom’s ferment.”

If we study the biographies of abolitionists, Donald says, we often find phrases like, “of the best New England stock,” “of Pilgrim descent,” “of a serious, pious household.” Donald says, “These families were neither rich nor poor, and it is worth remembering that among neither extreme did abolitionism flourish.”

The abolitionists were from a WASP elite that was declining. “The fathers of abolitionists had been leaders of their communities and states; in their old age they were elbowed aside by the merchant prince, the manufacturing tycoon, the corporation lawyer. The bustling democracy of the 1830’s passed them by; as the Reverend Ludovicus Weld lamented to his famous son Theodore: ‘I have... felt like a stranger in a strange land.’” (Theodore Dwight Weld was a leading abolitionist, said to be “‘as eloquent as an angel, and as powerful as thunder.’ His words were ‘logic on fire.’”)

Theodore Dwight Weld “shunned the cities, and chose to labor in the country districts.” Donald says, “Many of the antislavery leaders seemed to feel an instinctive antipathy toward the city.” In politics, the abolitionists were Whigs, not Jacksonian Democrats. In religion, they were usually Congregational, Presbyterian, or Quaker. “Very few Unitarians, Episcopalians, or Catholics.” Many had religious doubts.

Some abolitionists were influenced by British abolitionists (the British ended the Slave Trade in 1807, and abolished slavery in 1833). “Reading the tracts of Wilberforce and Clarkson converted William Lloyd Garrison to immediate abolitionism.”

Many abolitionists were influenced by religious revivalism, especially the preaching of Charles Finney, “whose revivalism set rural New York and the Western Reserve ablaze with religious fervor.” Weld was a Finney convert. Revivalism encouraged reform movements; Finney advocated “good works and pious endeavor.”

Donald describes the abolitionists thus:

Sons of the old New England of Federalism, farming, and foreign commerce, the reformers did not fit into a society that was beginning to be dominated by a bourgeoisie based on manufacturing and trade....

Here, then, is a composite portrait of abolitionist leadership. Descended from old and socially dominant Northeastern families, reared in a faith of aggressive piety and moral endeavor, educated for conservative leadership, these young men and women who reached maturity in the 1830’s faced a strange and hostile world. Social and economic leadership was being transferred from the country to the city, from the farmer to the manufacturer, from the preacher to the corporation attorney. Too distinguished a family, too gentle an education, too nice a morality were handicaps in a bustling world of business. Expecting to lead, these young people found no followers. They were an elite without function, a displaced class in American society....

Reform gave meaning to the lives of this displaced social elite.... Agitation allowed the only chance for personal and social self-fulfillment.

Donald says that the abolitionists didn’t oppose capitalism or private property, but they linked

moneyed aristocracy, textile manufacturing, and Southern slave-grown cotton. An attack on slavery was their best, if quite unconscious, attack upon the new industrial system.... The bitterest attacks in the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most pointed denunciations in the sermons of Theodore Parker, the harshest philippics in the orations of Charles Sumner were directed against the “Lords of the Loom,” not so much for exploiting their labor as for changing the character and undermining the morality of old New England.

So abolitionism was partly a response to Southern slavery, partly a response to Northern industrialization:

Abolitionism appears to have been a double crusade. Seeking freedom for the Negro in the South, these reformers were also attempting a restoration of the traditional values of their class at home. Leadership of humanitarian reform may have been influenced by revivalism or by British precedent, but its true origin lay in the drastic dislocation of Northern society. Basically, abolitionism should be considered the anguished protest of an aggrieved class.

Abolitionists looked askance at Lincoln, partly because he freed the slaves!

Such an interpretation helps explain the abolitionists’ excessive suspicion of Abraham Lincoln. Not merely did the President, with his plebeian origins, his lack of Calvinistic zeal, his success in corporate law practice, and his skill in practical politics, personify the very forces that they thought most threatening in Northern society, but by his effective actions against slavery he left the abolitionists without a cause. The freeing of the slaves ended the great crusade that had brought purpose and joy to the abolitionists. For them Abraham Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator; he was the killer of the dream.

D. An Excess of Democracy

One of the essays in Lincoln Reconsidered is called “An Excess of Democracy.”23 It argues that the Civil War was caused by an excess of democracy. In both North and South, elites had lost power, and power was in the hands of an uneducated mob, a mob that was ready to follow hotheads and extremists.

Donald begins by saying that historians are split between Fundamentalists and Revisionists, “between those who see the Civil War as the result of the operation of grand elemental forces and those who attribute it to the working of accidental or random factors.” One of the “grand elemental forces” is slavery. Donald says “no responsible political body in the North in 1860 proposed to do anything at all about slavery where it actually existed and no numerous group of Southerners thought their peculiar institution could be extended into the free states.” In the South, “only one fourth of the white families owned any slaves at all.” So it’s hard to argue that slavery caused the “actual outbreak of hostilities.”

Indeed, it’s hard to argue that any of the “grand causes” (economic cleavage, Southern nationalism, etc.) led to the actual outbreak of hostilities. Thus far, Donald agrees with Revisionists (like his mentor James G. Randall) that the Civil War was avoidable, a “needless war.” On the other hand, Donald isn’t convinced that accidental causes, like John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, can explain the outbreak of hostilities. So Donald is dissatisfied with both “grand causes” and “minor accidents,” dissatisfied with both Fundamentalists and Revisionists.

“The problem should be approached afresh.” We need to look at American society as a whole, Donald argues, and ask, Why was it easily persuaded by firebrands on both sides? Why was there a failure of statesmanship in the 1850s?

Donald says that all of America, North and South, was characterized by affluence and rapid social change. “Everywhere in America the early nineteenth century was the day of the self-made man.” In Massachusetts, Abbott Lawrence rose from humble origins to found a manufacturing dynasty. In the South, “The typical figure [is] not Robert E. Lee but tight-fisted Thomas Sutpen, William Faulkner’s fictional character, whose unscrupulous rise from hardscrabble beginnings to the planter class is traced in Absalom, Absalom.” In the newly-developed regions of Alabama and Mississippi,

Money, got without work, turned the heads of its possessors, and they spent it with a recklessness like that with which they gained it. The pursuits of industry neglected, riot and coarse debauchery filled up the vacant hours.... Swindling was raised to the dignity of the fine arts.... The condition of society may be imagined: vulgarity, ignorance, fussy and arrogant pretension, unmitigated rowdyism, bullying insolence.24

The Virginia aristocracy was being replaced by the nouveaux riches of the Deep South. “Political and economic leadership moved from Virginia, first to South Carolina, then to Mississippi. The educated, cosmopolitan plantation owners of the 1780s disappeared.” The nouveaux riches of the Deep South were easily moved by extremists; the first four states to secede were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama.

The U.S. lacked the institutions, structures, and traditions that Europe had. Discussing America around 1830, Henry James wrote,

One might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left.... No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools.... no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society.25

Donald says, “In nineteenth-century America all the recognized values of orderly civilization were gradually being eroded. Social atomization affected every segment of American society.” To describe this new reality, Tocqueville invented a new word, individualism. “Rarely in human history,” Donald writes, “has a people as a whole felt itself so completely unfettered by precedent.” This affected culture, too. Emerson: “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men.”

Not all Americans could follow the path of individualism as successfully as Emerson.

The permanent revolution that was America [Donald writes] had freed its citizens from the bonds of prescription and custom but had left them leaderless. Inevitably the reverse side of the coin of individualism is conformity. Huddling together in their loneliness, they sought only to escape their freedom. Fads, fashions, and crazes swept the country. Religious revivalism reached a new peak in the 1850s. Hysterical fears and paranoid suspicions marked this shift of Americans to “other-directedness.” Never was there a field so fertile before the propagandist, the agitator, the extremist.

European travelers noticed the “uncurbed egotism of the American child.... Parents have no command over their children.... The children govern the parents.” American adults were grown-up versions of these self-willed children. Tocqueville said that the typical Southerner was “irascible, violent, ardent in his desires, impatient of obstacles.”

All forms of authority were in retreat — parents, clergy, statesmen. “By the 1850’s the authority of all government in America was at a low point; government to the American was, at most, merely an institution with a negative role, a guardian of fair play.”

The lower classes of society were acquiring more political power, because the suffrage was being steadily extended:

The extension of the suffrage in America has rarely been the result of a concerted reform drive, such as culminated in England in 1832 and in 1867; rather it has been part of the gradual erosion of all authority, of the feeling that restraints and differentials are necessarily antidemocratic, and of the practical fact that such restrictions are difficult to enforce. By the mid-nineteenth century in most American states white manhood suffrage was virtually universal.

Once the suffrage was extended, candidates of all parties tried to attract these uneducated voters. Successful candidates were often celebrities, not people with a thorough grasp of the issues.

Candidates were selected [Donald writes] not because of their demonstrated statesmanship but because of their high public visibility. The rash of military men who ran for President in the 1840s and 1850s was no accident. If it is a bit too harsh to say that extension of the suffrage inevitably produced leaders without policies and parties without principles, it can be safely maintained that universal democracy made it difficult to deal with issues requiring subtle understanding and delicate handling.

Leading statesmen noticed the trend toward social atomization, and looked for remedies. Henry Clay tried to “revive the idea of the national interest... by binding together the sections in his American System: the West should produce the nation’s food; the South its staples; and the East its manufactures. The chief purpose of Daniel Webster’s great patriotic orations was to stimulate a national feeling based on shared traditions, values, and beliefs.” John C. Calhoun tried to find a way to “patriotism, nationality, harmony,” so different states would “struggle only for supremacy in promoting the common good of the whole.” But all these efforts went nowhere; the will of the people carried everything before it.

The nation couldn’t survive crises like the Mexican War, the Dred Scott decision, and the Harpers Ferry raid. “It was a society so new and so disorganized that its nerves were rawly exposed.... The crises themselves were not world-shaking, nor did they inevitably produce war. They were, however, the chisel strokes that revealed the fundamental flaws in the block of marble, flaws that stemmed from an excess of democracy.”

* * * * *

Donald quotes from Walter Bagehot’s essay “The American Constitution at the Present Crisis: Causes Of The Civil War In America.” Perhaps Bagehot’s essay is the source of Donald’s thesis that the war was caused by an excess of democracy. Bagehot was writing about six months after the outbreak of the Civil War. He takes a dim view of the Constitution.

Bagehot says that, in England, “the sovereign authority is the diffused respectable higher middle-class,” which is “predominant in the House of Commons.... Our security against tyranny is the reasonableness, the respectable cultivation, the business-like moderation of this governing class itself.” But the U.S. has no such governing class. It gives power to the broad masses, then tries to restrain that power through “checks and balances.” As Bagehot puts it, the Framers “placed the predominant power in the hands of the numerical majority of the population, and hoped to restrain and balance it by paper checks and constitutional stratagems.”

But these stratagems are only making things worse. The Framers established a “double election” for the Presidency, i.e., an initial vote followed by the Electoral College vote. This clever stratagem of a double election, Bagehot says, has given the country an untested politician:

At a crisis such as America has never before seen, and as it is not, perhaps, probable she will see again, the executive authority should be in the hands of one of the most tried, trusted, and experienced statesmen of the nation. Mr. Lincoln is a nearly unknown man, who has been but little heard of, who has had little experience.26

Throughout Lincoln Reconsidered, Donald makes the point that Lincoln was unpopular, that his contemporaries took a dim view of him. Evidently this was true of his English contemporaries as well as his American contemporaries.

The Framers established a 4-month gap between the Presidential election and the inauguration. This gap, Bagehot says, left the Southern rebels in charge of the very government that they were rebelling against! “It is now known that the Southern officials, purposely distributed the fleet of the Union in distant countries, placed stores of artillery where Southern rebels could easily take them, purposely disorganized the Federal army.”

So Bagehot takes a dim view of the Constitution, and assigns at least part of the blame for the Civil War to the Constitution. He also blames, “The steadily augmenting power of the lower orders in America,” and this is where Bagehot has influenced Donald.

In almost all the States [Bagehot writes] there was, at the time the Constitution [was] originally framed, a property qualification, in some States a high one, requisite for the possession of the most popular form of suffrage. Almost all these qualifications have now been swept away, and a dead level of universal suffrage runs, more or less, over the whole length of the United States. The external consequences, as we all know, have not been beneficial: the foreign policy of the Union has been a perplexing difficulty to European nations, and especially to England, for many years.

Nor have the internal consequences been better. The most enthusiastic advocates of a democratic government will admit that it is both an impulsive and a contentious government. Its special characteristic is, that it places the entire control over the political action of the whole State in the hands of the common laborers, who are of all classes the least instructed — of all the most aggressive.... The unpleasantness of mob government has never before been exemplified so conspicuously, for it never before has worked upon so large a scene.

Bagehot’s argument can be compared to Ortega’s theory of a “revolt of the masses.” But Donald pays no attention to Ortega. Donald is a deep thinker, but he stays within the channel of his specialty. Most scholars nowadays stay within their specialty; the wide-ranging scholar is largely a thing of the past.

One way to rebut Bagehot’s “excess of democracy” argument is to say that the system worked, the system put Lincoln in the White House, and Lincoln was well-qualified. Bagehot and Donald could say, “Yes, Lincoln saved the Union, slavery was ended, and the Constitution endured, but at what cost? A terrible war was fought, a war that could have been avoided.” Bagehot and Donald might admit that Lincoln was the right man for the job, but he came too late — too late to avert war.

Bagehot points out that, when the Constitution was being created, the chief quarrel was between small states and big states. After the Constitution took effect, Madison realized that the chief quarrel was between North and South. Bagehot quotes Madison: “The great danger to our general government is the great Southern and Northern interests of the continent being opposed to each other. Look to the votes in Congress, and most of them stand divided by the geography of the country, not according to the size of the States.”

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Scott Donaldson, Ch. 1. In an earlier issue, I discussed how the genius often has an unusually close relationship with his mother. This close relationship has been called “Jocasta mothering”; I called my essay “The Sons of Jocasta.” “As a result of Jocasta mothering,” I wrote, “the boy feels swallowed by the mother’s love, and has difficulty becoming independent. The boy’s feeling for his mother is ambivalent — a mix of love and hate.” This seems consistent with Fitzgerald’s biography.

Donaldson shrewdly links Fitzgerald’s Jocasta mothering with his unpopularity. Fitzgerald’s unpopularity at school is characteristic of genius, and can be compared to Thomas Wolfe’s experience at school. Wolfe writes, “Eugene’s first year at the university was filled for him with loneliness, pain, and failure. Within three weeks of his matriculation, he had been made the dupe of a half-dozen classic jokes.... As he walked across the campus, he heard his name called mockingly from a dozen of the impartial windows, he heard the hidden laughter.... It seemed to him... that the best he could do would be to seek out obscurity for the next four years.... There was no one to whom he could turn: he had no friends.”(Look Homeward Angel, Ch. 28)

This situation proved to be temporary for Wolfe, as for Fitzgerald. Wolfe eventually became involved in many activities at the University of North Carolina, and enjoyed his time there, as Fitzgerald enjoyed his time at Princeton.

Perhaps the best example of Jocasta mothering and unpopularity is Proust. As I wrote in an earlier issue, “As a student, Proust didn’t fit in socially; one of his classmates later wrote, ‘There was something about him which we found unpleasant. His kindnesses and tender attentions seemed mere mannerisms and poses, and we took occasion to tell him so to his face. Poor, unhappy boy, we were beastly to him.’” As he became an adult, though, Proust became increasingly social, like Fitzgerald and Wolfe.

Fitzgerald himself links his Jocasta mothering not with his unpopularity but with his poor academic record: “An indulgent mother had given him no habits of work.”(“The Freshest Boy”)

Another characteristic of genius is timidity, which is a cause of unpopularity, and an effect of Jocasta mothering. I discussed timidity with reference to Joyce, Kipling, Ibsen, and Graham Greene. back

2. Wikipedia. About a year before he died, Fitzgerald wrote his daughter, “I am not a great man, but sometimes, I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” Matthew Bruccoli’s biography of Fitzgerald is called Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. back
3. Wikipedia back
3B. See Fitzgerald’s short story “Winter Dreams.” back
4. Wikipedia says that, as Ginevra was the model for Daisy Buchanan, so Max Gerlach was the model for Jay Gatsby, and Edith Cummings was the model for Jordan Baker. back
5. Wikipedia back
6. Wikipedia back
7. Wikipedia back
8. See the end of the excellent Fitzgerald documentary, Winter Dreams. back
9. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Preface back
10. Wikipedia back
11. Wikipedia, quote from Polanyi back
12. This is a quote from Godden, not Polanyi. back
13. Wikipedia back
14. Wikipedia back
15. Wikipedia back
16. Wikipedia. Nowadays there are a few people, such as Judy Shelton, who advocate a return to the Gold Standard. As Bryan and others wanted to leave the Gold Standard, so some Europeans want to leave the Euro; the Euro seems to entail the kind of austerity that was once associated with the Gold Standard. The argument over the Gold Standard, around 1900, might be compared to the argument in recent years over globalization. back
17. Hart is quoting Edmund Wilson. Hart and Wilson say that the pessimistic Fitzgerald was inspired by certain writers, but they don’t identify those writers. back
18. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Ch. 20 back
19. This is a quote from Colonel J. D. Hittle, not Donald. back
20. Donald is quoting General J. C. F. Fuller. back
21. Donald is quoting Clement Eaton. back
22. The Constitution said nothing about Reconstruction — nothing about bringing seceded states back into the Union, nothing about the enfranchisement of freed slaves by Federal decree. “Lincoln realized that the whole issue of reconstruction was by its nature extraconstitutional.”

When Lincoln took office, it was felt that Fort Sumter must be reinforced or evacuated, but Lincoln did neither. He sent food and supplies to Sumter, then waited. “Confederate hotheads were unable to wait so long as the cool-blooded Northern President, and they fired the first shot at Sumter. To Lincoln’s support all elements of Northern society now rallied.” Lincoln’s passivity had paid off.

It should be noted that, while Lincoln grasped the wisdom of passivity, of non-doing, he was capable of acting decisively. Donald says, “In 1861 when the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter he acted with such vigorous promptness that his critics cried out against his ‘dictatorship.’ Without consulting Congress, he decided that a state of war existed, summoned the militia... and enlarged the size of the regular United States army. Without congressional appropriation or approval he entrusted two million dollars of government funds to his private agents in New York in order to pay for ‘military and naval measures necessary for the defense and support of the government.’” back

23. The essay was Donald’s inaugural lecture, when he became Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. The full title is, “An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil War and the Social Process.” back
24. Donald is quoting a Southern writer, Joseph G. Baldwin, who wrote The Flush Times of Mississippi and Alabama, which deals with the period “when the virgin lands in that region were first opened to settlement.” back
25. Quoted by Donald from James’ book on Hawthorne, Ch. 2 back
26. Bagehot is quoting “a recent writer.”

Bagehot is known for his political and literary essays, and also for his book on high finance, Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market. back