A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


The next time the members of our little group came together, the manufacturer began at once upon the banker:

“I should think that our friend the professor, here, would hardly like that notion of yours, that business, as business, has nothing to do with the education of a gentleman. If this is a business man’s country, and if the professor has nothing in stock but the sort of education that business has no use for, I should suppose that he would want to go into some other line.”

The banker mutely referred the matter to the professor, who said, with that cold grin of his which I hated:

“Perhaps we shall wait for business to purge and live cleanly. Then it will have some use for the education of a gentleman.”

“I see,” said the banker, “that I have touched the quick in both of you, when I hadn’t the least notion of doing so. But I shouldn’t really like to prophesy which will adapt itself to the other — education or business. Let us hope there will be mutual concessions. There are some pessimists who say that business methods, especially on the large scale of the trusts and combinations, have grown worse instead of better; but this may be merely what is called a ‘transition state.’ Hamlet must be cruel to be kind; the darkest hour comes before dawn — and so on. Perhaps when business gets the whole affair of life into its hands, and runs the republic, as its enemies now accuse it of doing, the process of purging and living cleanly will begin. I have known lots of fellows who started in life rather scampishly; but when they felt secure of themselves, and believed that they could afford to be honest, they became so. There’s no reason why the same thing shouldn’t happen on a large scale. We must never forget that we are still a very novel experiment, though we have matured so rapidly in some respects that we have come to regard ourselves as an accomplished fact. We are really less so than we were forty years ago, with all the tremendous changes since the war. Before that we could take certain matters for granted. If a man got out of work, he turned his hand to something else; if a man failed in business, he started in again from some other direction; as a last resort, in both cases, he went West, preempted a quarter-section of public land, and grew up with the country. Now the country is grown up; the public land is gone; business is full on all sides, and the hand that turned itself to something else has lost its cunning. The struggle for life has changed from a free-fight to an encounter of disciplined forces, and the free-fighters that are left get ground to pieces between organized labor and organized capital. Decidedly, we are in a transition state, and if the higher education tried to adapt itself to business needs, there are chances that it might sacrifice itself without helping business. After all, how much education does business need? Were our great fortunes made by educated men, or men of university training? I don’t know but these young fellows are right about that.”

“Yes, that may all be,” I put in. “But it seems to me that you give Mr. Homos, somehow, a wrong impression of our economic life by your generalizations. You are a Harvard man yourself.”

“Yes, and I am not a rich man. A million or two, more or less; but what is that? I have suffered, at the start and all along, from the question as to what a man with the education of a gentleman ought to do in such and such a juncture. The fellows who have not that sort of education have not that sort of question, and they go in and win.”

“So you admit, then,” said the professor, “that the higher education elevates a business man’s standard of morals?”

“Undoubtedly. That is one of its chief drawbacks,” said the banker, with a laugh.

“Well,” I said, with the deference due even to a man who had only a million or two, more or less, “we must allow you to say such things. But if the case is so bad with the business men who have made the great fortunes — the business men who have never had the disadvantage of a university education — I wish you would explain to Mr. Homos why, in every public exigency, we instinctively appeal to the business sense of the community as if it were the fountain of wisdom, probity, and equity. Suppose there were some question of vital interest — I won’t say financial, but political or moral or social — on which it was necessary to rouse public opinion, what would be the first thing to do? To call a meeting over the signatures of the leading business men, because no other names appeal with such force to the public. You might get up a call signed by all the novelists, artists, ministers, lawyers, and doctors in the state, and it would not have a tithe of the effect, with the people at large, that a call signed by a few leading merchants, bank presidents, railroad men, and trust officers would have. What is the reason? It seems strange that I should be asking you to defend yourself against yourself.”

“Not at all, my dear fellow, not at all,” the banker replied, with his caressing bonhomie. “Though I will confess, to begin with, that I do not expect to answer your question to your entire satisfaction. I can only do my best — on the instalment plan.”

He turned to the Altrurian, and then went on: “As I said the other night, this is a business man’s country. We are a purely commercial people; money is absolutely to the fore; and business, which is the means of getting the most money, is the American ideal. If you like, you may call it the American fetish; I don’t mind calling it so myself. The fact that business is our ideal, or our fetish, will account for the popular faith in business men, who form its priesthood, its hierarchy. I don’t know, myself, any other reason for regarding business men as solider than novelists or artists or ministers, not to mention lawyers and doctors. They are supposed to have long heads; but it appears that ninety-five times out of a hundred they haven’t. They are supposed to be very reliable; but it is almost invariably a business man of some sort who gets out to Canada while the state examiner is balancing his books, and it is usually the longest headed business men who get plundered by him. No, it is simply because business is our national ideal that the business man is honored above all other men among us. In the aristocratic countries they forward a public object under the patronage of the nobility and gentry; in a plutocratic country they get the business men to indorse it. I suppose that the average American citizen feels that they wouldn’t indorse a thing unless it was safe; and the average American citizen likes to be safe — he is cautious. As a matter of fact, business men are always taking risks, and business is a game of chance, in a certain degree. Have I made myself intelligible?”

“Entirely so,” said the Altrurian; and he seemed so thoroughly well satisfied that he forbore asking any further question.

No one else spoke. The banker lighted a cigar, and resumed at the point where he left off when I ventured to enter upon the defence of his class with him. I must say that he had not convinced me at all. At that moment I would rather have trusted him, in any serious matter of practical concern, than all the novelists I ever heard of. But I thought I would leave the word to him, without further attempt to reinstate him in his self-esteem. In fact, he seemed to be getting along very well without it, or else he was feeling that mysterious control from the Altrurian which I had already suspected him of using. Voluntarily or involuntarily, the banker proceeded with his contribution to the Altrurian’s stock of knowledge concerning our civilization:

“I don’t believe, however, that the higher education is any more of a failure, as a provision for a business career, than the lower education is for the life of labor. I suppose that the hypercritical observer might say that in a wholly commercial civilization like ours the business man really needed nothing beyond the three R’s, and the working-man needed no R at all. As a practical affair, there is a good deal to be said in favor of that view. The higher education is part of the social ideal which we have derived from the past, from Europe. It is part of the provision for the life of leisure, the life of the aristocrat, which nobody of our generation leads, except women. Our women really have some use for the education of a gentleman, but our men have none. How will that do for a generalization?” the banker asked of me.

“Oh,” I admitted, with a laugh, “it is a good deal like one of my own. I have always been struck with that phase of our civilization.”

“Well, then,” the banker resumed, “take the lower education. That is part of the civic ideal which, I suppose, I may say we evolved from the depths of our inner consciousness of what an American citizen ought to be. It includes instruction in all the R’s, and in several other letters of the alphabet. It is given free by the state, and no one can deny that it is thoroughly socialistic in conception and application.”

“Distinctly so,” said the professor. “Now that the text-books are furnished by the state, we have only to go a step further and provide a good, hot lunch for the children every day, as they do in Paris.”

“Well,” the banker returned, “I don’t know that I should have much to say against that. It seems as reasonable as anything in the system of education which we force upon the working classes. They know perfectly well, whether we do or not, that the three R’s will not make their children better mechanics or laborers, and that, if the fight for a mere living is to go on from generation to generation, they will have no leisure to apply the little learning they get in the public schools for their personal culture. In the mean time we deprive the parents of their children’s labor, in order that they may be better citizens for their schooling, as we imagine; I don’t know whether they are or not. We offer them no sort of compensation for their time, and I think we ought to feel obliged to them for not wanting wages for their children while we are teaching them to be better citizens.”

“You know,” said the professor, “that has been suggested by some of their leaders.”

“No, really? Well, that is too good!” The banker threw back his head and roared, and we all laughed with him. When we had sobered down again, he said: “I suppose that when a working-man makes all the use he can of his lower education he becomes a business man, and then he doesn’t need the higher. Professor, you seem to be left out in the cold by our system, whichever way you take it.”

“Oh,” said the professor, “the law of supply and demand works both ways: it creates the demand, if the supply comes first; and if we keep on giving the sons of business men the education of a gentleman, we may yet make them feel the need of it. We shall evolve a new sort of business man.”

“The sort that can’t make money, or wouldn’t exactly like to, on some terms?” asked the banker. “Well, perhaps we shall work out our democratic salvation in that way. When you have educated your new business man to the point where he can’t consent to get rich at the obvious cost of others, you’ve got him on the way back to work with his hands. He will sink into the ranks of labor, and give the fellow with the lower education a chance. I’ve no doubt he’ll take it. I don’t know but you’re right, professor.”

The lawyer had not spoken as yet. Now he said: “Then it is education, after all, that is to bridge the chasm between the classes and the masses, though it seems destined to go a long way around about it. There was a time, I believe, when we expected religion to do that.”

“Well, it may still be doing it, for all I know,” said the banker. “What do you say?” he asked, turning to the minister. “You ought to be able to give us some statistics on the subject with that large congregation of yours. You preach to more people than any other pulpit in your city.”

The banker named one of the principal cities in the East, and the minister answered, with, modest pride: “I am not sure of that; but our society is certainly a very large one.”

“Well, and how many of the lower classes are there in it — people who work for their living with their hands?”

The minister stirred uneasily in his chair, and at last he said, with evident unhappiness: “They — I suppose — they have their own churches. I have never thought that such a separation of the classes was right; and I have had some of the very best people — socially and financially — with me in the wish that there might be more brotherliness between the rich and poor among us. But as yet —”

He stopped; the banker pursued: “Do you mean there are no working-people in your congregation?”

“I cannot think of any,” returned the minister, so miserably that the banker forbore to press the point.

The lawyer broke the awkward pause which followed: “I have heard it asserted that there is no country in the world where the separation of the classes is so absolute as in ours. In fact, I once heard a Russian revolutionist, who had lived in exile all over Europe, say that he had never seen anywhere such a want of kindness or sympathy between rich and poor as he had observed in America. I doubted whether he was right. But he believed that, if it ever came to the industrial revolution with us, the fight would be more uncompromising than any such fight that the world had ever seen. There was no respect from low to high, he said, and no consideration from high to low, as there were in countries with traditions and old associations.”

“Well,” said the banker, “there may be something in that. Certainly, so far as the two forces have come into conflict here, there has been no disposition, on either side, to ‘make war with the water of roses.’ It’s astonishing, in fact, to see how ruthless the fellows who have just got up are toward the fellows who are still down. And the best of us have been up only a generation or two — and the fellows who are still down know it.”

“And what do you think would be the outcome of such a conflict?” I asked, with my soul divided between fear of it and the perception of its excellence as material. My fancy vividly sketched the outline of a story which should forecast the struggle and its event, somewhat on the plan of the Battle of Dorking.

“We should beat,” said the banker, breaking his cigar-ash off with his little finger; and I instantly cast him, with his ironic calm, for the part of a great patrician leader in my “Fall of the Republic.” Of course, I disguised him somewhat, and travestied his worldly bonhomie with the bluff sang-froid of the soldier; these things are easily done.

“What makes you think we should beat?” asked the manufacturer, with a certain curiosity.

“Well, all the good jingo reasons: we have got the materials for beating. Those fellows throw away their strength whenever they begin to fight, and they’ve been so badly generalled, up to the present time, that they have wanted to fight at the outset of every quarrel. They have been beaten in every quarrel, but still they always want to begin by fighting. That is all right. When they have learned enough to begin by voting, then we shall have to look out. But if they keep on fighting, and always putting themselves in the wrong and getting the worst of it, perhaps we can fix the voting so we needn’t be any more afraid of that than we are of the fighting. It’s astonishing how short-sighted they are. They, have no conception of any cure for their grievances except more wages and fewer hours.”

“But,” I asked, “do you really think they have any just grievances?”

“Of course not, as a business man,” said the banker. “If I were a working-man, I should probably think differently. But we will suppose, for the sake of argument, that their day is too long and their pay is too short. How do they go about to better themselves? They strike. Well, a strike is a fight, and in a fight, nowadays, it is always skill and money that win. The working-men can’t stop till they have put themselves outside of the public sympathy which the newspapers say is so potent in their behalf; I never saw that it did them the least good. They begin by boycotting, and breaking the heads of the men who want to work. They destroy property, and they interfere with business — the two absolutely sacred things in the American religion. Then we call out the militia and shoot a few of them, and their leaders declare the strike off. It is perfectly simple.”

“But will it be quite as simple,” I asked, reluctant in behalf of my projected romance, to have the matter so soon disposed of —“will it be quite so simple if their leaders ever persuade the working-men to leave the militia, as they threaten to do, from time to time?”

“No, not quite so simple,” the banker admitted. “Still, the fight would be comparatively simple. In the first place, I doubt — though I won’t be certain about it — whether there are a great many working-men in the militia now. I rather fancy it is made up, for the most part, of clerks and small tradesmen and book-keepers, and such employés of business as have time and money for it. I may be mistaken.”

No one seemed able to say whether he was mistaken or not; and, after waiting a moment, he proceeded: “I feel pretty sure that it is so in the city companies and regiments, at any rate, and that if every working-man left them it would not seriously impair their effectiveness. But when the working-men have left the militia, what have they done? They have eliminated the only thing that disqualifies it for prompt and unsparing use against strikers. As long as they are in it we might have our misgivings, but if they were once out of it we should have none. And what would they gain? They would not be allowed to arm and organize as an inimical force. That was settled once for all in Chicago, in the case of the International Groups. A few squads of policemen would break them up. Why,” the banker exclaimed, with his good-humored laugh, “how preposterous they are when you come to look at it! They are in the majority, the immense majority, if you count the farmers, and they prefer to behave as if they were the hopeless minority. They say they want an eight-hour law, and every now and then they strike and try to fight it. Why don’t they vote it? They could make it the law in six months by such overwhelming numbers that no one would dare to evade or defy it. They can make any law they want, but they prefer to break such laws as we have. That ‘alienates public sympathy,’ the newspapers say; but the spectacle of their stupidity and helpless wilfulness is so lamentable that I could almost pity them. If they chose, it would take only a few years to transform our government into the likeness of anything they wanted. But they would rather not have what they want, apparently, if they can only keep themselves from getting it, and they have to work hard to do that!”

“I suppose,” I said, “that they are misled by the unAmerican principles and methods of the Socialists among them.”

“Why, no,” returned the banker, “I shouldn’t say that. As far as I understand it, the Socialists are the only fellows among them who propose to vote their ideas into laws, and nothing can be more American than that. I don’t believe the Socialists stir up the strikes — at least, among our working-men; though the newspapers convict them of it, generally without trying them. The Socialists seem to accept the strikes as the inevitable outcome of the situation, and they make use of them as proofs of the industrial discontent. But, luckily for the status, our labor leaders are not Socialists, for your Socialist, whatever you may say against him, has generally thought himself into a Socialist. He knows that until the working-men stop fighting, and get down to voting — until they consent to be the majority — there is no hope for them. I am not talking of anarchists, mind you, but of Socialists, whose philosophy is more law, not less, and who look forward to an order so just that it can’t be disturbed.”

“And what,” the minister faintly said, “do you think will be the outcome of it all?”

“We had that question the other night, didn’t we? Our legal friend here seemed to feel that we might rub along indefinitely as we are doing, or work out an Altruria of our own; or go back to the patriarchal stage and own our working-men. He seemed not to have so much faith in the logic of events as I have. I doubt if it is altogether a woman’s logic. Parole femmine, fatti maschi, and the logic of events isn’t altogether words; it’s full of hard knocks, too. But I’m no prophet. I can’t forecast the future; I prefer to take it as it comes. There’s a little tract of William Morris’s, though — I forget just what he calls it — that is full of curious and interesting speculation on this point. He thinks that, if we keep the road we are now going, the last state of labor will be like its first, and it will be owned.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that will ever happen in America,” I protested.

“Why not?” asked the banker. “Practically, it is owned already in a vastly greater measure than we recognize. And where would the great harm be? The new slavery would not be like the old. There needn’t be irresponsible whipping and separation of families, and private buying and selling. The proletariate would probably be owned by the state, as it was at one time in Greece; or by large corporations, which would be much more in keeping with the genius of our free institutions; and an enlightened public opinion would cast safeguards about it in the form of law to guard it from abuse. But it would be strictly policed, localized, and controlled. There would probably be less suffering than there is now, when a man may be cowed into submission to any terms through the suffering of his family; when he may be starved out and turned out if he is unruly. You may be sure that nothing of that kind would happen in the new slavery. We have not had nineteen hundred years of Christianity for nothing.”

The banker paused, and, as the silence continued, he broke it with a laugh, which was a prodigious relief to my feelings, and I suppose to the feelings of all. I perceived that he had been joking, and I was confirmed in this when he turned to the Altrurian and laid his hand upon his shoulder. “You see,” he said, “I’m a kind of Altrurian myself. What is the reason why we should not found a new Altruria here on the lines I’ve drawn? Have you never had philosophers — well, call them philanthropists; I don’t mind — of my way of thinking among you?”

“Oh yes,” said the Altrurian. “At one time, just before we emerged from the competitive conditions, there was much serious question whether capital should not own labor instead of labor owning capital. That was many hundred years ago.”

“I am proud to find myself such an advanced thinker,” said the banker. “And how came you to decide that labor should own capital?”

“We voted it,” answered the Altrurian.

“Well,” said the banker, “our fellows are still fighting it, and getting beaten.”

I found him later in the evening talking with Mrs. Makely. “My dear sir,” I said, “I liked your frankness with my Altrurian friend immensely; and it may be well to put the worst foot foremost; but what is the advantage of not leaving us a leg to stand upon?”

He was not in the least offended at my boldness, as I had feared he might be, but he said, with that jolly laugh of his: “Capital! Well, perhaps I have worked my candor a little too hard; I suppose there is such a thing. But don’t you see that it leaves me in the best possible position to carry the war into Altruria when we get him to open up about his native land?”

“Ah! If you can get him to do it.”

“Well, we were just talking about that. Mrs. Makely has a plan.”

“Yes,” said the lady, turning an empty chair near her own toward me. “Sit down and listen.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56