An eerie familiarity

One of my favorite examples of polemic is from the conclusion to Henry Adams’ essay “A Chapter of Erie,” detailing the corruption that surrounded the development of the Erie Railroad in the 1860s in New York. It remains as relevant today as when it was written, if not more so.

Modern society has created a class of artificial beings who bid fair soon to be the masters of their creator. It is but a very few years since the existence of a corporation controlling a few millions of dollars was regarded as a subject of grave apprehension, and now this country already contains single organizations which wield a power represented by hundreds of millions. These bodies are the creatures of single States; but in New York, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland, in New Jersey, and not in those States alone, they are already establishing despotisms which no spasmodic popular effort will be able to shake off. Everywhere, and at all times, however, they illustrate the truth of the old maxim of the common law, that corporations have no souls. Only in New York has any intimation yet been given of what the future may have in store for us should these great powers become mere tools in the hands of ambitious, reckless men. The system of corporate life and corporate power, as applied to industrial development, is yet in its infancy. It tends always to development, – always to consolidation, – it is ever grasping new powers, or insidiously exercising covert influence. Even now the system threatens the central government. The Erie Railway represents a weak combination compared to those which day by day are consolidating under the unsuspecting eyes of the community. A very few years more, and we shall see corporations as much exceeding the Erie and the New York Central in both ability and will for corruption as they will exceed those roads in wealth and in length of iron track. We shall see these great corporations spanning the continent from ocean to ocean, -single, consolidated lines, not connecting Albany with Buffalo, or Lake Erie with the Hudson, but uniting the Atlantic and the Pacific, and bringing New York nearer to San Francisco than Albany once was to Buffalo. Already the disconnected members of these future leviathans have built up States in the wilderness, and chosen their attorneys senators of the United States. Now their power is in its infancy; in a very few years they will re-enact, on a larger theatre and on a grander scale, with every feature magnified, the scenes which were lately witnessed on the narrow stage of a single State. The public corruption is the foundation on which corporations always depend for their political power. There is a natural tendency to coalition between them and the lowest strata of political intelligence and morality; for their agents must obey, not question. They exact success, and do not cultivate political morality. The lobby is their home, and the lobby thrives as political virtue decays. It is a new power, for which our language contains no name. We know what aristocracy, autocracy, democracy are; but we have no word to express government by moneyed corporations. Yet the people already instinctively seek protection against it, and look for such protection, significantly enough, not to their own legislatures, but to the single autocratic feature retained in our system of government, the veto by the Executive. In this there is something more imperial than republican. The people have lost faith in themselves when they cease to have any faith in those whom they uniformly elect to represent them. The change that has taken place in this respect of late years in America has been startling in its rapidity. Legislation is more and more falling into contempt, and this not so much on account of the extreme ignorance manifested in it as because of the corrupt motives which are believed habitually to actuate it. Thus the influence of corporations and of class interests is steadily destroying that belief in singleness of purpose which alone enables a representative government to exist, and the community is slowly accustoming itself to look for protection, not to public opinion, but to some man in high place and armed with great executive powers. Him they now think they can hold to some accountability. It remains to be seen what the next phase in this process of gradual development will be. History never quite repeats itself, and, as was suggested in the first pages of this narrative, the old familiar enemies may even now confront us, though arrayed in such a modern garb that no suspicion is excited. No successful military leader will repeat in America the threadbare experiences of Europe;- the executive power is not likely to be seized while the legislative is suppressed. The indications would now seem rather to point towards the corruption of the legislative and a quiet assumption of the executive through some combination in one vigorous hand of those influences which throughout this narrative have been seen only in conflict. As the Erie ring represents the combination of the corporation and the hired proletariat of a great city; as Vanderbilt embodies the autocratic power of Caesarism introduced into corporate life, and as neither alone can obtain complete control of the government of the State, it, perhaps, only remains for the coming man to carry the combination of elements one step in advance, and put Caesarism at once in control of the corporation and of the proletariat, to bring our vaunted institutions within the rule of all historic precedent.

It is not pleasant to take such views of the future; yet they are irresistibly suggested by the events which have been narrated. They seem to be in the nature of direct inferences. The only remedy lies in a renovated public opinion;. but no indication of this has as yet been elicited. People did indeed, at one time, watch these Erie developments with interest, but the feeling excited was rather one of amazement than of indignation. Even where a real indignation was excited, it led to no sign of any persistent effort at reform; it betrayed itself only in aimless denunciation or in sad forebodings. The danger, however, is day by day increasing, and the period during which the work of regeneration should begin grows always shorter. It is true that evils ever work their own cure, but the cure for the evils of Roman civilization was worked out through ten centuries of barbarism. It remains to be seen whether this people retains that moral vigor which can alone awaken a sleeping public opinion to healthy and persistent activity, or whether to us also will apply these words of the latest and best historian of the Roman republic: “What Demosthenes said of his Athenians was justly applied to the Romans of this period; that people were very zealous for action so long as they stood round the platform and listened to proposals of reform; but, when they went home, no one thought further of what he had heard in the market-place. However those reformers might stir the fire, it was to no purpose, for the inflammable material was wanting.” *

* Mommsen, Vol. IV. p. 91, referring to the early Ciceronian period, B.C. 75.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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