Modern liberalism has often been defined as the experimental method applied to politics and as the mentality that insists that culture, not nature, puts the future of humanity in its own hands. In terms of American history, modern liberalism is conventionally presented as an adaptation of nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberal individualism to the growth of big business, and as an updated expression of Jacksonian animus to vested interests. There is something substantial in all of these definitions, but, even taken together, they leave out a great deal.
American liberals don’t like to compare themselves with other twentieth-century ideologues. But, like all the ideologies that emerged in the early twentieth century—from communism and fascism to socialism, social democracy, and its first cousin, British Fabianism—liberalism was created by intellectuals and writers who were rebelling against the failings of the rising middle class. They had a quarrel with the industry, immigration, and economic growth that produced unprecedented prosperity in the United States. They recoiled at what they saw as the ugly bustling cacophony of the urban masses loudly staking their claim to capitalism’s bounty.
In America, the founding fathers of liberalism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, looking both backward to the more orderly virtues of pre-industrial society and forward to the promise of a future that would use science to transcend the crass culture created by a largely unregulated capitalism. At a time when millions were reaping the benefits of a stunning array of new inventions—the telephone, motion pictures, the washing machine, the gramophone—America seemed ripe for reshaping. Autos, airplanes, and radios were altering received notions of time and space. On the one hand, we were reveling in the new: the most dynamic economy in the world that was generating vast national oligopolies. On the other, we were mired in the old: a provincial political culture rooted in practices that had taken hold well before the Civil War. The disparity was striking.
The politics of the countryside were organized around courthouse cliques pursuing petty preferences and ethnic squabbles, while urban centers were ravished by the “pigs at the trough” character of the big-city political machines, which replaced the rule of law with the politics of patronage. By European standards, there was no central government in America to speak of. Most social and economic policy originated in the states, where the political parties (organized around ethnic, cultural, and regional issues) dominated government. Nationally, the president spent as much time on patronage as policy, and he competed with Congress for control of the departments of the Treasury, Agriculture, and the Interior. Far from regal, presidents in this era were known to answer the White House doorbell. Shortly after the famed British author H.G. Wells visited the U.S. in 1905, he described the American federal government as “marooned, twisted up into knots, bound with safeguards, and altogether impotently stranded.”
In the aftermath of the Civil War, anti-slavery journalists and intellectuals felt besmirched by the “great barbecue” of getting and spending unleashed by the breakneck expansion of the economy. James Russell Lowell’s 1876 “Ode for the Fourth of July” captured the sense of displacement:
And if the nobler passions wane,
Distorted to base use, if the near goal
Of insubstantial gain
Tempt from the proper race-course of the soul…
Is this the country we dreamed in youth,
Where wisdom and not numbers should have weight…?
E.L. Godkin, the founding editor of The Nation and a forerunner of liberalism, similarly complained about ignoble Americans: “A gaudy stream of bespangled, belaced, and beruffled barbarians” were flocking to New York to spend their recently acquired fortunes. “Who knows how to be rich in America?” he asked. “Plenty of people know how to get money; but…to be rich properly is indeed a fine art. It requires culture, imagination, and character.” Godkin and his allies, hoping for leaders of superior intelligence and virtue, looked to Charles Francis Adams Jr. as a possible leader. He was the grandson of president John Adams and the son of President John Quincy Adams, and, like Godkin, he thought that businessmen lacked the temperament to govern; what we needed in office were aristocrats like him.
It was Charles Francis Adams’s brother Henry who, through his book The Education of Henry Adams (first published privately in 1907), became an inspiration to liberals. The Education described Henry Adams’s disappointment with an American society that did not pay him due deference. Adams’s disaffection created the model for much of what became left-wing intellectual life. Adams turned his sour complaints of being bypassed and his sense of himself as a failure into a judgment against the American people. The hustle and bustle of American life were so dismaying to him that he once said he “should have been a Marxist.”
“To the gradually cohering body of dissenters from the orthodoxies of American life,” explained Lionel Trilling, “The Education of Henry Adams was a sacred book . . . despite, or because of, its hieratic esoteric irony and its reiterated note of patrician condescension.” Henry Adams grounded the intellectual’s alienation from American life in the resentment that superior men feel when they are insufficiently appreciated in America’s common-man culture. Adams’s disdain for the modern and the mechanical and his distrust of the ideal of progress would become leitmotifs of American liberalism and important elements of the environmental movement. Reissued, The Education of Henry Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. In the wake of WWI, the book was read as prophecy that had foretold the damage done by democracy in the Great War.
Adams resented the new men—the economists, physicians, and chemists whose science-based authority had displaced literary men such as himself. H.G. Wells and the American architecture critic Herbert Croly, two of modern liberalism’s founders, shared Adams’s anti-capitalist sentiments. But Wells and Croly argued in their seminal works that the very experts Adams had despised had a crucial role to play: They could help displace the freewheeling capitalism the literary elites scorned.
H.G. Wells is today best remembered as the author of such late-nineteenth-century best-selling socio-scientific fantasies as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man, all still read today, if only as entertainment or fodder for Hollywood scripts. But he was much more than a fantasist. At the turn of the twentieth century, Wells set forth the two central tropes of liberalism: a sense of superiority and a claim on the future. Liberals thought themselves smarter than other people because they had seen through the supposed Victorian verities to a future not yet born.
“Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation,” George Orwell explained in 1941. “There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers…and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.”
Wells’s 1901 nonfiction book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought was credited with “the discovery of the future.” He described the book as the “keystone to the main arch of my work.” His programs for deploying scientific remedies to cure social diseases turned the already esteemed author into a social and political seer in England and also in America, where Anticipations had already been serialized in The North American Review.
The story of the shift from the “old” nineteenth-century Victorian liberalism of laissez-faire to the “new liberalism” that is the modern statist variety has almost exclusively focused on how the growth of giant industries undercut the old assumptions about individual sovereignty. But there was a parallel shift induced by the concussive intellectual impact of Darwinism. Darwin’s location of human origins in the natural world rather than the spiritual realm begged for prophets of a secular humanity. Wells, who more than any other intellectual understood both shifts, saw himself and was seen by his devotees as just such a prophet.
Anticipations seemed to endow the author with omniscience and made Wells an intellectual hero for reform-minded writers anxious to break with what they saw as the stale orthodoxies of nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism, with its business-centered morality and embrace of democracy. “The book,” Wells explained, “was designed to undermine and destroy…monogamy, faith in God & respectability, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electrical heating.” For many young American intellectuals, Wells’s writings were a passport out of provincialism.
Looking back on the century of material and mechanical progress that had just passed, numerous fin de siècle writers commented on both its achievements and its running sore, the seemingly permanent immiseration of the urban working class. But Wells looked ahead and asserted that there was as much a pattern to the future as there was to the past. He not only argued inductively about the likely nature of what was to come based on the way the telephone and telegraph and railroad had shrunk the world, but he also conjured up a dramatic cast of characters. His account was peopled with those he loathed, such as the idle, parasitic rich and the “vicious helpless pauper masses,” whom he described as “the people of the abyss.” He similarly despised the yapping politicians and yellow journalists who were, in his view, instruments of patriotism and war.
But if these were the people who were leading the world on the path to hell, there were also the redeemers, the “New Republicans,” “the capable men” of vision who might own the future. These scientist-poets and engineers could, he thought, seize the reins in the Darwinian struggle; rather than descending into savagery, we would follow their lead toward a new and higher ground. They were the heroes of the drama. “Written in the language of sociology,” explain his biographers Norman and Jeanne McKenzie, his fictions were morality plays about the Last Judgment. If the redeemers, the anti-global-warming crusaders of their day, were rejected, then civilization would perish.
For the randy Wells, the choice was clear. On one hand, he could join the ranks of the new men of science—who aimed to discard Anglo-American family mores and replace the politicians—and freely pursue a richly textured life. On the other hand, if he adhered to stale Victorian morality, his life would be one of bleakly conventional routines. Compared with the “normal, ordinary world which is on the whole satisfied with itself” and that encompasses “the great mass of men,” he wrote, “there is the ever advancing better world, pushing through this outworn husk in the minds and wills of creative humanity.” This was the difference between the bovine “Normal Life” of workers, clerks, and small businessmen and the “Great State” led by the creative class. The conflicts between these classes were “not economic but psychological,” he said. The advent of the machine created the possibility of what he called, anticipating Herbert Marcuse, “surplus life.” It was a realm of expanded imagination available to those who eschewed “the normal scheme” and engaged in what John Stuart Mill had portrayed as “life experiments.”
Wells gave an account of his first trip to these shores, in 1906, in The Future in America, which was serialized in U.S. and British magazines. In it, we see that Wells was heartened by the absence of a traditional aristocracy in America but also chagrined that Americans lagged in creating a new aristocratic class of scientists and intellectuals, who were the key to a shining future. “All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another,” he wrote. “The American community…does not correspond to an entire European community at all, but only to the middle masses of it—to the trading and manufacturing class between the dimensions of the magnate and the clerk and the skilled artisan. It is the central part of the European organism without either the dreaming head or the subjugated feet.” In England, he noted approvingly, modern men of money “had become part of a responsible ruling class.” But the absence of an aristocracy in the U.S. had a debilitating underside because it left the country without the sense of “state responsibility,” which was needed “to give significance to the whole.” The typical American “has no sense of the state,” Wells complained. “He has no perception that his business activities, his private employments, are constituents in a larger collective process.”
Wells was appalled by the decentralized nature of America’s locally oriented party and country-courthouse politics. He was aghast at the flamboyantly corrupt political machines of the big cities, unchecked by a gentry that might uphold civilized standards. He thought American democracy went too far in providing leeway to the poltroons who ran the political machines and the “fools” who supported them. The “immigrants are being given votes,” but “that does not free them, it only enslaves the country,” he said. In the North, he complained, even “the negroes were given votes.” This was no small matter for Wells, because as an Englishman he saw his country’s path as thoroughly intertwined with America’s. “One cannot look ten years ahead in England, without glancing across the Atlantic,” he wrote in The Future in America. “Our future is extraordinarily bound up in America’s, and in a sense dependent on it.” Not that he embraced it: “I would as soon go to live in a pen in a stockyard as into American politics,” he wrote.
The federal government in Washington, suffering from “state blindness,” from “a want of concentration,” sent Wells into further hyperbole. “The place seems to me to reflect…that dispersal of power, the evasion of simple conclusiveness” produced by “a legislature that fails to legislate, a government that cannot govern.” Demonstrating his limited knowledge of European governments, he rated the American government as the bottom of the barrel: “Congress as it is constituted at present is the feeblest, least accessible, and most inefficient central government of any civilized nation in the world West of Russia.”
At a time when “collectivism” and “individualism” were new words that reflected the twin challenge to the Victorian ideal of laissez-faire government, Wells saw the absence of an American collective will as the nation’s greatest weakness. “The greatest work which the coming century has to do…is to build up an aristocracy of thought and feeling which shall hold its own against the aristocracy of mercantilism” and its allies “materialism and Philistinism.” Wells had discarded the Calvinism of his youth but clung fondly to its concept of a deserving elect.
Limning what would become modern American liberalism, Wells saw three social streams ...