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Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light
Ruminations of E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
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.”