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“Misgovernment in the United States is an incident in the history of commerce.”

September 29, 2009

As we unravel political knots, they resolve themselves into proverbs and familiar truth, and thus our explanation becomes a treatise upon human nature, a profession of faith. The idea that man is an unselfish animal has gradually been forced upon me, by the course of reflection which I give in the following chapters, in the order in which it occurred to me. The chapters are little more than presentations from different points of view of this one idea. The chapters on Politics and Society seem to show that our political corruptions and social inferiorities can be traced to the same source, namely, temporary distortion of human character by the forces of commerce. The chapter on Education is a study on the law of intellectual growth, and shows that a normal and rounded development can only come from a use of the faculties very different from that practiced by the average American since the discovery of the cotton gin.

Misgovernment in the United States is an incident in the history of commerce. It is part of the triumph of industrial progress. Its details are easier to understand if studied as a part jjcof the commercial development of the country than if studied as a part of government, because many of the wheels and cranks in the complex machinery of government are now performing functions so perverted as to be unmeaning from the point of view of political theory, but which become perfectly plain if looked at from the point of view of trade. The growth and concentration of capital which the railroad and the telegraph made possible is the salient fact in the history of the last quarter-century. That fact is at the bottom of our political troubles. It was inevitable that the enormous masses of wealth, springing out of new conditions and requiring new laws, should strive to control the legislation and the administration which touched them at every point. At the present time, we cannot say just what changes were or were not required by enlightened theory. It is enough to see that such changes as came were inevitable; and nothing can blind us to the fact that the methods by which they were obtained were subversive of free government.

–John Jay Chapman, Causes and Consequences (1899)

N.B.: A simple substitution clarifies much of what is now happening in American politics:

“The growth and concentration of capital which the insurance and pharmaceutical industries made possible is the salient fact in our failure to reform health care over the last quarter century. That fact is at the bottom of our political troubles.”

Incidentally, the reference Chapman makes to the “cotton gin” may seem obscure. What he means is this: the invention of the cotton gin (along with other things for which it here stands as symbol) allowed for a vast expansion of slave labor in a system of mono-crop agriculture for export on a global market; and that this so perverted American politics & American mores, well after the Civil War, as to have infected even our system of education. (In 1860, by the way, revenues from cotton exports accounted for 53% of all export revenue in the U.S.A.)

Cf. the first comment below for my own introduction to John Jay Chapman, a great forgotten American. I should add that I owe my acquaintance w/ Chapman to a great friend & a great poet, Mark Scott.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 29, 2009 11:11 PM


    Among the anecdotes that come down to us from men who knew John Jay Chapman in his youth are two peculiarly telling ones. A classmate of his at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, recalls Chapman’s habit of passing his hands over their Latin textbook, as if warming them at a fire; his idea was that “the language would enter his system through the pores.” Owen Wister recalls from the same epoch Chapman’s strange distraction while at the game of cricket. Chapman would stand, sublimely oblivious of the ball that flew toward the wicket he guarded. Why? He was lost in prayer (M.A. DeWolfe Howe, “John Jay Chapman and His Letters,” 21).

    Captured here is Chapman’s strange unworldliness, an abstraction that became, with him, a principle by which to live, though it was accompanied always by the conviction that duty to the other world is fulfilled only by intervention into the imperfect, fallen, games-playing world we actually inhabit during our three score years and ten. This way of taking hold on the present world, as from a position of Ideality, was in fact Chapman’s great inheritance from his abolitionist forbears, among whom, most notably, was his grandmother, Maria Weston Chapman, the associate of William Lloyd Garrison.

    Chapman writes in a memoir that lay unpublished at his death: “In Boston, antislavery continued to be taboo. Friendly relations were never re-established between the Garrisonians and the social life of Boston. The breach which began in 1829 lasted for a generation after the war.” The reason was that the abolitionists “broke with ritual, with ceremony, with all the conventional pieties of religion, and they never thereafter had time to improvise substitutes of their own” (Howe 14-15). This latter omission was, in Chapman’s view, a great good fortune, for he developed early on a contempt for convention and ceremony, and above all for institutions (in his later years this echt protestant contempt for institutional authority led him into a series of bitter attacks on the Roman Catholic Church). He was “an inward creature,” as he put it, “walking about in worlds unrealized” (Howe 22). And as for “institutions of all kinds,” he has this to say: “A jail, a lunatic asylum, a summer school—community life of any sort, is a sanitarium. It says to me, `Good morning; have you used Pear’s soap? Now you may take ten minutes on the treadmill. It is such wholesome exercise.’ I cannot bear to pass a town high school” (Howe 22). The rather general and innocuous—in fact, conventionally eulogistic—word “community” is allowed, here, to take on sinister connotations. In this sentence of Chapman’s about the town high school we might fancifully hear a word of admonition for us in the too civic-minded, too politely like-minded literary wing of the academy. And we may surely find in his example as a writer and literary critic a bracing independence of mind that has its proper correlative, always, in a prose style as unforgettable and emphatically personal as it now is rare.

    Chapman admired the Garrisonian abolitionists for their utter indifference to the treadmills and wholesome exercises of the respectable classes. He carried Emersonian self-reliance to its ultimate degree. Likely he regretted that the breach between the abolitionists and Boston society was ever healed at all. He wants the breach there. It is forever an index of the agitating disparity between the Ideal and the Actual, between the Real and the Apparent, and between the Eternal and the merely Temporal. After all, “society” has everything to do with ritual, convention, piety, and ceremony, everything to do with form. And in the abolitionists Chapman found men and women who had the antinomian informality, and also the perfect conviction, of Thoreau. “It is a ridiculous demand,” Thoreau says in “Walden,” “which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.”

    Chapman’s singular achievement was to have carried the high-strung, counter-conventional, iconoclastic temper of Garrisonian abolitionism into the 1890s and beyond, an era during which it struck most Americans as quaint and embarrassing, and struck many as an evil absolutely to be shunned; and to have carried it as well into the practice of literary criticism, where it has scarcely been seen since, save in the work of a writer like Yvor Winters. Louis Menand has suggested (in The Metaphysical Club [2000] and elsewhere) that one of the great (and, to his mind, fortunate) casualties of the American Civil War was precisely the utopian absolutism that made men willing to kill and die for an idea. What replaced that absolutism was the more worldly, contingent, and compromising philosophy of pragmatism. Men no longer wandered about “in worlds unrealized” to which they demanded the “realized” world somehow must be made to correspond. Though Chapman went through Harvard precisely when this new way of thinking was consolidating itself, and though he was a friend and correspondent of William James, as much as anyone the ameliorating architect of pragmatism, he could never be at ease in a world without, as James once put it, “Truth with a big `T.’” That is why Chapman remains, in our own era of the uncertainty principle, a bracing study in letters. “It is an accident when I do right,” he once wrote to his second wife, “but I am right” (Howe 8). We in the English Department know far too little of him.

    Chapman was born on March 2, 1862, in New York City, the son of Wall Street stockbroker Henry Grafton Chapman and Eleanor Jay Chapman. On his mother’s side he was descended from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, and on his father’s, as I say, from Maria Weston Chapman. A certain habit of political agitation, an almost fanatical devotion to the idea of liberty, and a scorching conscience were among his great inheritances from his ancestors. In 1876 Chapman entered the St. Paul’s School mentioned above, though illness forced him to leave after only a year. Over the next few years he prepared himself privately to enter Harvard University, which he did in 1880. After graduating four years later, he toured Europe for a while, and met, among other notables, Tennyson, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson. On his return to the United States he entered Harvard Law School and, during his time there, the incident that most vividly marks him took place.

    Chapman had fallen in love with Minna Timmins, an Italian-American woman of great charm. And at a party in Cambridge he assaulted a man whom he imagined (without reason, in fact) to be his rival for her hand, Percival Lowell. His conscience so tormented him that, on returning to his rooms, he thrust his left hand into the coal-burning stove and held it there, searing it so badly as to leave the knuckles exposed. “This will not do,” he remembers having said as he backed away from the fire. The hand had to be amputated. But after an enforced separation—on which the Timmins family had insisted—he did in fact marry Minna in 1889. Something of his depth of feeling for her may be discerned in the following portrait, which he set down in an introduction to a volume of letters by his son Victor: “She had the man-minded seriousness of women in classic myths, the regular brown, heavy dark hair, and free gait of the temperament that lives in heroic thought and finds the world full of chimeras, of religious mysteries, sacrifice, purgation. This part of her nature was her home and refuge. Here dwelt the impersonal power that was never far from her. There have been few women like her; and most of them have existed only in the imagination of Aeschylus and the poets” (Howe 71).

    Chapman was admitted to the New York bar in 1888, the year before his marriage to Minna. But he never practiced law seriously, and, as his father had left him financially independent, he didn’t have to. Later, he described his flirtation with the law in a memoir that still has never been published in full: “As I worked in the office I writhed in pain—the entire length and breadth of my physical system. . . I got up and clutched the desk and prayed. . . I had my head bound with a cap of iron, and when I used to stop working the suspended agony came down like a cataract, and I went uptown trembling, crying” (Howe 63). His real aspirations were political and literary, and he soon became deeply involved in the City Reform Club of New York, agitating against, among other things, the corruption of Tammany Hall. Out of his work here came two books, Causes and Consequences (1898), an engaging study of politics, education, and government, and Practical Agitation (1900), a sort of handbook for reformers. During the same years he wrote some of the best literary and cultural criticism he was ever to publish—in fact, it is among the best ever published in America—and edited a highly eccentric journal of commentary called The Political Nursery, of which thirty-six numbers were issued between March 1897 and January 1901. The latter carried above its mast-head the following slogan: “The object of the THE NURSERY is to tell the truth. There is no publication at present which seems to cover this exact field.” The journal printed editorials, poetry, book reviews, essays, and ranged widely in topic. Chapman never limited himself to the vagaries of New York City machine politics. In fact, as Melvin Bernstein puts it, “the politics of his native city had grown to include the politics of his country, of England, of France, and, indeed, of the world. The corrupt politician merged in his Abolition-haunted mind with the lyncher of Negroes,” and also with the colonial bureaucrats who administered the lives of Filipinos, or Indians, or Congolese. “Chapman’s conscience,” Bernstein concludes, “had caught the cosmos, in which justice and love, the head and the heart, were locked in a gigantic, painful embrace; and its pain Chapman felt in the marrow of his bones.” Doubtless he did feel it. The years of political work told on his tightly-wound constitution. He suffered a total nervous collapse in 1901, from which he did not recover fully for ten years.

    Minna had died in 1897, shortly after the birth of their third son, and the next year Chapman married Elizabeth Chanler, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life, and who gave birth, in 1901, to his fourth son and last child. (Two sons would not survive him: one died by drowning in 1903, another was killed in action during World War I.) Though he traveled with some regularity in Europe, Chapman remained based in New York until his death in a Poughkeepsie hospital in 1933, with Elizabeth at his side.


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