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Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light

July 2024
16min read

Ruminations of E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton.

It used to be said in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that all the dogs in town wailed mournfully whenever E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton got together to exchange their gloomy views on the state of the nation. In the summer of 1897 Norton wrote Godkin that he had recently been forced to put his paper aside one evening “because with each note or article the gloom deepened till it grew darker than it used to be even in my study when after an evening of talk you declared that it was enough to make Rome howl.” For more than thirty years Godkin and Norton sustained and fed each other’s pessimism, sorely disappointed as they both were with developments in post-Civil War America. They believed that American morality had declined precipitately since the early days of the republic. They lamented the lack of good men in politics and the domination of the public service by men of coarse and corrupt nature. They watched with jaundiced eyes as millions of immigrants poured into their country. They took in the “General Grant” architecture, read the new literature, deplored the new wealth, saw successful businessmen gain entrance to their private clubs, faced America’s plunge into imperialism and the glaring headlines of the yellow press—and declared it an age of vulgarity and a nation of “chromo-civilization.”

There have always been such men, convinced in the core of their being that what had been in their youth a world of gold had lately turned to dross. In the era of industrialism and mass democracy these Jeremiahs have more often than not come from the ranks of the old landed, learned, or professional elites most in danger of being superseded or ignored by a democratic and acquisitive society. The quicker the rate of change and the fresher the memory of better times, the greater the likelihood that these gentle Brahmins would deplore the life around them. The rapidly changing America which emerged from the Civil War provoked just such an outcry of genteel despair—a dismay eloquently expressed by E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton. Both men placed the blame for their unhappiness on precisely those features of American civilization which were most highly valued by the majority of their countrymen: material prosperity and democratic government.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin was born in Moyne, County Wicklow, Ireland, on October 2, 1831. His father was a Presbyterian clergyman who became a political journalist after being ejected from the pulpit for his advocacy of home rule for Ireland. Young Edwin, too, went into journalism after making an indifferent record at Oueen’s College, Belfast. Already the youthful author of a history of Hungary, Godkin left for the Crimea in 1853 as a war correspondent for the London Daily News. Upon his return two years later he resolved to emigrate to the United States. In November of 1856 he reached America, where for nearly a decade (except for a short period spent in Ireland and Europe) he occupied himself with law studies and writing letters on American affairs for the London Daily News. His early friends included a number of important eastern Republicans, and in 1865, when they decided to found a journal that would reflect their political and economic views, they established the weekly Nation and selected to edit it the thirty-four-year-old Godkin. One of the prime backers of the enterprise and a close friend of the new editor was Charles Eliot Norton.

Godkin’s sharp and authoritative editorials quickly made the Nation a habit for thousands of readers (one would be hard put to recognize it in the Nation that is published today); later on, his work performed the same service for the daily New York Evening Post (equally unrecognizable in the modern Post), whose editor he became in 1881 while retaining his position on the Nation. The critical tone of the Nation made it seem to some a “weekly judgment day,” and neither it nor the Evening Post attracted a large circulation. Both, however, exercised wide influence. College students adopted Godkin’s opinions for their own the way later generations of students would parrot H. L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. And other newspapermen paid close attention to Godkin’s editorials. Once when New York’s Democratic Governor David B. Hill was under attack by the Evening Post he remarked: “I don’t care anything about the handful of Mugwumps who read it in New York [City]. The trouble with the damned sheet is that every editor in New York State reads it.”

Yet Godkin had formidable critics. The most vehement among them was Theodore Roosevelt, who called Godkin almost every disagreeable epithet that came to his fertile mind. To him Godkin was an unpatriotic man, “a malignant and dishonest liar” who suffered from “a species of moral myopia, complicated with intellectual strabismus.” Lincoln Steffens, who worked for a short time with Godkin, thought that his editorials were “clever, forceful, [and] ripping” but also “personal and not very thoughtful.” The Boston banker and philanthropist Henry L. Higginson believed that as Godkin’s career unfolded, his words became “so twisted and stained by great conceit, arrogance, evil temper, that they lost their fairness, their perspicacity, their virtue and therefore their value.”

Charles Eliot Norton had those qualities of gentleness and contemplativeness that his friend Godkin lacked. He too was the son of a clergyman, Andrews Norton, a prominent Unitarian divine. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1827, Norton spent his youth in the scholarly surroundings of a home frequented by such distinguished visitors as Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, George Ticknor, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While still a youth he developed a great passion for rare books and art objects, thus demonstrating an early and serious interest in the field to which he was unable to devote his full attention until he was nearly fifty. He made Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, and after his graduation in 1846 spent a decade in business. The next twenty years were passed in studying, living in Europe, writing and editing books, supervising Union propaganda activities during the Civil War, and working both as editor and contributor for the cream of American journals—the Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, and the Nation. Finally, in 1875, he was appointed Harvard’s first professor of fine arts, a post which he retained until he retired in 1897.

As a scholar, Norton was an acknowledged master of medieval studies and a respected translator of Dante. He wrote an important volume titled Historical Studies of Church-Building in the Middle Ages as well as studies of Dante, Donne, Ruskin, Gray, Michelangelo, Holbein, and Turner. In addition, he edited the letters of James Russell Lowell, the Thomas Carlyle-Ralph Waldo Emerson correspondence, the Carlyle-Goethe correspondence, and the letters he had received from John Ruskin. As a teacher, Norton’s aim was to advance aesthetic values and inculcate high standards of taste. Art was not to be studied merely for its own sake. Norton believed that man had reached his greatest moral and intellectual heights in ancient Greece and medieval Italy, and he thought that this superiority could be seen in the artistic achievements of those epochs. It was his habit in class to illustrate this relationship between art and morality with frequent deprecating references to the barrenness of American art and the moral and intellectual inferiority of American life.

The story is told that Norton once began a lecture on the idea of the “gentleman” by remarking airily: “None of you, probably, has ever seen a gentleman.” It was inevitable that a teacher with such a rarefied taste for the antique would become the subject of parodies and the source of much campus amusement. One story has it, for instance, that an undergraduate emerged after three meetings of Norton’s Fine Arts 3 course with his total notes reading:
  1. Greece.
  2. Bully for Greece.
  3. There are no flies on Greece.

Norton’s general aesthetic sensibilities and his displeasure with the design of many new buildings at Harvard were parodied in a tale to the effect that he had died and was about to enter heaven when he suddenly drew back, shaded his eyes and exclaimed: “Oh! Oh! Oh! So overdone! So garish! So Renaissance!” Despite the numerous campus jokes made at his expense, Norton’s encouragement of the fine arts and his efforts to direct public attention to the advancing deterioration of America’s landscape and cities made him an important figure in post-Civil War America—a friend of art museums, conservation projects, parks, and schools. In the opinion of Van Wyck Brooks, “no one aroused the country more to a sense of its general ugliness and a will to create a beautiful civilization.”

In politics Godkin and Norton were mugwumps—independents who refused to commit themselves to the fortunes of any particular party. Both feared that American politics had rejected the country’s “good men,” and hoped for a breakup of the old party organizations. As early as 1859 Godkin had complained that the “nominating conventions toss men like Clay and Webster aside, and fish out from amongst the obscurities Pierces and Buchanans as likely to prove more pliable instruments in factious hands.” The political machines, he charged, put up such bad men to run for office that good men were no longer tempted to enter public affairs.

For Godkin and Norton the decline in political morality was but one aspect of a more serious decline in the quality of American life. Each felt that the United States had once enjoyed a Golden Age of reason, simplicity, and high morality. But the push toward an industrial way of life was transforming the social and physical landscape of their once-Arcadian America, and wherever they looked they now saw deterioration and decadence. Godkin deplored the “moral anarchy” of modern business methods and despised those who employed them. He fought the admission of businessmen to the Century Club of New York, complaining that most of them “rarely open a book” and “know no more, read no more, and have no more to say than the bricklayer and the plumber.” For his part, Norton was particularly concerned with the aesthetic changes and the unfortunate transformation in the tone of society. The country he had known had vanished under a wave of vulgarity. The “barren” art and literature of the late nineteenth century depressed him:

Nowhere in the civilized world are the practical concerns of life more engrossing; nowhere are the conditions of life more prosaic; nowhere is the poetic spirit less evident, and the love of beauty less diffused. The concern for beauty, as the highest end of work, and as the noblest expression of life, hardly exists among us, and forms no part of our character as a nation.

Norton told a friend in 1873 that America had lost its original bright promise and was “not a pleasing child.” Only Harvard, Yale, the Nation, and the North American Review stood firm as “solid barriers against the invasion of modern barbarism & vulgarity.” The other landmarks and manners of an earlier and better day were disappearing before his very eyes. Even Cambridge was slipping away; Norton felt himself a stranger in his birthplace. The few houses that remained from his childhood were occupied by “new people.” Norton could find only “half a dozen men or women” who could converse on those general subjects once familiar to all people of education—“My fair neighbor asks, ‘What are Pericles?’ ” Thus Norton, condemned to live in an age of industrialization and specialization, sighed under his burden of nostalgia. One of his students—young Josephine Peabody, who heard him lecture at Radcliffe in 1895, wrote:

Professor Norton lectured in Italian 4 this afternoon. The dear old man looks so mildly happy and benignant while he regrets everything in the age and the country—so contented, while he gently tells us it were better for us had we never been born in this degenerate and unlovely age.

What had brought America to its present condition? Godkin found in the very heart of the American Experiment—in its commitment to political democracy and social equality—the cause of what he deemed to be its failure. These noble ideals simply did not work in practice. The triumph of popular rule had come to mean only that politicians catered to the lowest level of understanding. The ideal of equality, which in theory referred to an “equality of burdens,” had in actuality degenerated into a contempt for the excellent and superior, a “disregard for special fitness.” Could anything but disaster be expected from the masses whom this egalitarian democracy had thrown to the top? Godkin wrote in 1870:

Their rush into the forum and into the temples and palaces and libraries is not an agreeable sight to witness, and it would be foolish to expect that under their ruthless touch many gifts and graces will not be obscured, many arts will not be lost, many a great ideal, at whose shrine the best men and women of three generations have found courage and inspiration, will not vanish from the earth …

Along with equality and democracy both Godkin and Norton believed that the third agent of destruction was prosperity. Norton had long maintained that there was a causal connection between great wealth and the dissolution of national character. The decline of Greece had been set off by the “increase of private luxury [and] selfishness” and the rise of “unrestrained individuality.” Surely it was vanity to believe that America could be spared the disastrous effects of excessive material wealth. As early as 1853 Norton had warned that the long and uninterrupted history of prosperity enjoyed by the United States was beginning to take its toll in a declining national character. After the Civil War the blight grew worse and spread beyond the frontiers and across the ocean. Money-getting was proving the ruin of literature and was blunting the intelligence of the people; even in Europe materialism was leaving its imprint. A foolish optimism was in the air. From Florence in 1869 Norton wrote:
Italy in losing tyrants, in becoming constitutional, in taking to trade, is doing what she can to spoil her charm. The railroad whistle just behind the church of Santa Maria Novella, or just beyond the Campo Santo at Pisa, sounds precisely as it sounds on the Back Bay or at the Fitchburg Station,—and it and the common school are Americanizing the land to a surprising degree. Happy country! Fortunate people! Before long they may hope for their Greeleys, their Beechers, and their Fisks.

Norton did not deny that democracy could “work,” but as he said following the election of 1884, it appeared to work “ignobly, ignorantly, brutally.” Or it could work as it had begun to in Europe, bringing about “the destruction of old shrines, the disregard of beauty, the decline in personal distinction, the falling off in manners.” What was clear was that democracy did not work as Norton had hoped it would. In his view democracy was supposed to mean that everyone in society would be public-spirited. But it had turned out in practice to mean that everyone was involved in the selfish pursuit of private interests. Rather than heightening the individual’s awareness of his civic responsibilities, universal suffrage had furnished “a distinct source of moral corruption.” Rather than increasing the wisdom of all citizens, democracy had diminished the regard for intelligent counsel and produced a general “rejection of authority.” The sense of license and the smug complacency that had been created by democracy and prosperity had made “extravagant self-confidence” and willful conduct the hallmarks of the American people. Writing in 1896, Norton declared: “It seems to me not unlikely that for a considerable time to come there will be an increase of lawlessness and of public folly.”

Godkin was savage in his dislike for the many immigrants who were so rapidly being incorporated into the American political system. Their votes gave power to the corrupt urban bosses who exploited them. One could see on every hand, Godkin exclaimed, the “ignorant” foreign voter “eating away the political structure, like a white ant, with a group of natives standing over him and encouraging him.” In 1891 he proposed that all immigrants be shut out unless they could read and write the English language. This would mean, he admitted, that all but a few immigrants would perforce come from the British Isles, “but why not, if the restriction be really undertaken in the interest of American civilization? We are under no obligation to see that all races and nations enjoy an equal chance of getting here.” Godkin called it natural law “that the more intelligent and thoughtful of the race shall inherit the earth and have the best time, and that all others shall find life on the whole dull and unprofitable.”

Godkin did not pretend to have answers to the problems of the age that he and Norton castigated. The structure of American life seemed too corrupt to save, too rotten to shore up with marginal improvements, and he eventually determined to return to England rather than witness its expected collapse. Norton had no answers either, but his pessimism was relieved by a limited belief in the worth of ameliorative action, and his distrust of acquisitiveness and democracy was mitigated by the genuine interest he took in the unprecedented material and educational achievements of America’s lower classes.

As an active participant in the social and political processes, Norton established a night school for the poor in 1846; he promoted better housing for the underprivileged; he was in the forefront of the campaign for female suffrage and education (with the hope that women would raise the ideals and tone of American society); and, in the interest of preserving at least the landscape of America, he fought hard and effectively to save both the Adirondacks and Niagara Falls from exploitation and desecration. In an effort to exert direct influence upon public opinion, Norton founded the Ashfield “academy dinners,” held each summer from 1879 to 1903 in Ashfield, Massachusetts. On these occasions civil-service reform, tariff reduction, Negro education, and anti-imperialism, as well as many other mugwump interests, were discussed by William Dean Howells, George Washington Cable, William James, James Russell Lowell, Booker T. Washington, and many others, including Norton himself.

Norton was consoled and reassured by the knowledge that, in his country, the economic and educational level of the lower classes had been elevated to the highest point in history. When William Dean Howells inquired of him, “Well, after all, if you could change, would you rather have been an Englishman than an American?” Norton unhesitatingly replied: “No, if I could choose I would rather have been American.”

But, at best, progress came at a maddeningly slow pace, and Norton succeeded only intermittently in maintaining his optimism. In 1871 he bitterly predicted that the creation of a really sound republic would take as long as the evolution from monkey to man. In 1884 he described himself as an “absolute” pessimist—a man who had learned not to hope for any good in the world and who thus lived a life free of expectations and complaints:

Your out-and-out pessimist is cheerful, even though nature herself plays false, and uses loaded dice against him in the game. Darwinism has helped us a good deal. You expect less of men when you look at them not as a little lower than the angels, but as a little higher than the anthropoid apes.

By the mid-1890s E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton had lived for a third of a century believing that their country was in a steady decline, that its onetime promise had been largely submerged by a rising tide of corruption, immorality, tastelessness, and stupidity. Thus it was more than coincidental that, at this time, the thoughts of each man turned to the fall of Rome. In 1895 Godkin wrote Norton:

You see I am not sanguine about the future of democracy. I think we shall have a long period of decline like that which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, and then a recrudescence under some other form of society.

A year later Norton wrote an English friend:

It is hard to have the whole background of life grow darker as one grows old. I can understand the feeling of a Roman as he saw the Empire breaking down, and civilization dying out. It will take much longer than we once hoped, for the world to reorganize itself upon a democratic basis, and for a new and desirable social order to come into existence.

But—with the faith that never completely left him—he added: “If we set our hope far enough forward we need not lose it.”

By 1895 Godkin and Norton had come to sound increasingly like men who were close to abandoning all hope for their country. From the Nation and from Harvard they watched the ailing American Experiment falter and fail. It was the Spanish-American War and the expansionism that accompanied it that administered the coup de grâce. Godkin and Norton were angry and saddened but not surprised, for they had expected all along that something of the sort would happen. The times had long been out of joint, and imperialism was but another blow—albeit the heaviest—against the America they had known. Only one question remained for them: was the blow fatal?

For thirty years Godkin had been an opponent of expansionism, hammering away against every annexation scheme that dared to raise its head. Three months before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, when the Senate was considering the annexation of Hawaii, Godkin had summarized his objections to a policy of territorial annexation in a Nation editorial:

The sudden departure from our traditions; the absence from our system of any machinery for governing dependencies; the admission of alien, inferior, and mongrel races to our nationality; the opening of fresh fields to carpetbaggers, speculators, and corruptionists; the un-Americanism of governing a large body of people against their will, and by persons not responsible to them; the entrance on a policy of conquest and annexation while our own continent was still unreclaimed, our population unassimilated, and many of our most serious political problems still unsolved; and finally the danger of the endorsement of a gross fraud for the first time by a Christian nation.

At the close of the war in August, 1898, Godkin remained firmly opposed to all annexation schemes, and throughout the rest of that year and all of the next he repeatedly emphasized the difficulties the United States would face if it became an imperialist power. He believed that the establishment of a colonial administration would necessitate a drastic overhaul of the American government, “a complete change in our destiny, political, military, and naval.” If the United States annexed the Philippines and had to defend them from the covetousness of other powers, it would be necessary to arm to the teeth with naval and military forces capable of being “instantly” mobilized and dispatched to any danger spot on the globe. And we would need a “permanent” colonial service:

It will not do to vote money and build ships, simply, and drill armies and sailors. If we are going to annex and rule over countries the population of which differs from us in race, religion, language, in history and every variety of antecedent, and who will probably hate us and treat our rule as a “yoke,” we shall have to get administrators ready, as well as guns and ships. We shall have to do what the other conquering and colonizing nations do, what England does, what Russia and Germany do.

In his anger Godkin railed at the expansionists for their betrayal of American principles. In the Philippines, he charged, McKinley, “drunk with glory and flattery,” had substituted “keen effective slaughter for Spanish old-fashioned, clumsy slaughter.” When eager missionaries began planning new translations of the Bible in the various tongues of the Filipinos, the Nation derisively commented that they should read: “Mow down the natives like grass and say unto them, the Syndicate has arrived.” But there was no longer much heart in Godkin’s protest, for he had concluded that the fight was virtually lost. In late 1898 and early 1899 he gave way to utter despair, publicly declaring that “the old American republic is in a bad way.” In private letters he poured out his full sorrow:

I am, heart and soul, an American of the vielle roche. American ideals were the intellectual food of my youth, and to see America converted into a senseless, Old World conqueror, embitters my age. [May, 1899]

I came here fifty years ago with high and fond ideals about America.… They are now all shattered, and I have apparently to look elsewhere to keep even moderate hopes about the human race alive. [Late 1899]

I have suffered from seeing the America of my youthful dreams vanish from my sight, and the commencement on this continent of the old story. … [November 13, 1899]

Godkin suffered a stroke in February of 1900. Fifteen months later he left his adopted country and returned to England. Occasionally the bitter humor of former days would return to him, as when he wrote James Bryce: “Do come over soon, and we’ll lie under a tree at Dublin while you abuse Great Britain and I abuse the United States.” He died in Devon on May 21, 1902, and was buried in the Hazelbeach churchyard, Northampton, to rest forever in England. In America, the country he had abandoned, the Nation published a fitting epitaph:

He grew old in an age he condemned,

Felt the dissolving throes

Of a Social order he loved,

And, like Theban seer,

Died in his enemies’ day.

Charles Eliot Norton, like Godkin, interpreted the Spanish-American War and its aftermath as final proof that his early hopes for a special American destiny had been in vain. Amid the popular enthusiasm aroused by early American victories in Cuba and at Manila Bay, he advised students not to enlist (familiar note!) and declared before an audience in Cambridge that the United States had rashly:

hurried into war, and … she who more than any other land was pledged to peace and goodwill on earth, unsheathes her sword, compels a weak and unwilling nation to a fight, rejecting without due consideration her earnest and repeated offers to meet every legitimate demand of the United States. It is a bitter disappointment to the lover of his country; it is a turning-back from the path of civilization to that of barbarism.

Godkin and Norton were among those nineteenth-century idealists who had hoped, like the Puritans of the seventeenth century, that America would be a city set on a hill—a state and civilization that would attract the admiration of and serve as an example to the world. Despite disappointments, these two remarkable men, schooled in the genteel tradition, were never able to resist the lingering hope that America might yet be saved, and they flattered themselves that men such as they might yet create in the distant future a superior civilization in America. In 1902—with Americans in control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—Norton counselled his friends not to give up:

While all the congregation of the children of Israel are wandering in the wilderness of Sin … we, the little remnant of the house of Judah that has escaped, must comfort one another as best we may…we are defeated for the time; but the war is not ended, and we are enlisted for the war.

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