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Education of a Reformer

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Tke Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 2 vols. $7.50.

Autobiography is a difficult art, one which has seldom been cultivated with success by members of this great republic. Henry Adams wrote a great book on his own education; he told us much about the absurdity of some American institutions and the folly of politicians, but he did not give a great deal of his own daily experiences. John Quincy Adams left the greatest of American diaries and unintentionally presented an intimate portrait of himself and the house of Adams. Roosevelt tried to write an autobiography, but failed; Woodrow Wilson was appealed to every month, on a royalty of a million dollars, to try the art; but he declined the venture. There are some diaries and some autobiographies now in manuscript, awaiting the demise of their authors and certain other interesting people. One may safely fear, however, that these will not find that happy via media between the egotism which suggests a published autobiography and the fine, un-tutorial assessment of values in an important life. Men greatly need autobiography in this age of unsurpassed self-seeking; but it takes genius of the first order to tell, in good taste, the pertinent truth about oneself. Having said so much that the reader may, long since have thought out for himself, let us turn to Mr. Lincoln Steffens and his two thick volumes.

I am inclined to say in the beginning that he has done a better work than Henry, Adams, that is, better for the million or more people who may in a generation read his book; but he is less of a philosopher than the author of “The Education,” less of a prig and a little more of a cynic. He leaves the reader with a bewildered sense of the vast and futile pattern of western civilization. Adams thought mankind in this country and Europe was doomed by its folly in setting up machinery which tended to run out of all human control; and he died an exile in the country which his family had done so much to create. Steffens, with good enough family behind him and proud enough of the fact, as he furtively shows, thought in the beginning of his career that American civilization was marvelous, but that it was burdened with vicious and unscrupulous exploiters, and that it was the business of all intelligent men to kill off the exploiters and save the civilization; as time went on, however, he came to think there was little to save, that all the uplifters were humbugs ; and, unlike Adams, he reversed himself and discovered in the great crooks of business, the pirates and the bribegivers, the saviors of whatever civilization there is. He is a convalescent optimist, and so getting to be a good American. So much for the subject in general and the authors of two most valuable critiques of American fife in particular; perhaps the reader will welcome a little more of the scheme and the content of the autobiography before us.


Lincoln Steffens saw the light on the so-called sunny j western coast of the United States where men were, until 1900, the least American of the Americans. He was lucky in his parentage. His picture of that far-off boyhood in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century is charming, if a little too detailed. Steffens, the gay young man, went to Germany and, if one may trust this belated account, quickly took up the role of critic, of skeptical picker and chooser of university offerings. He returned to the United States to learn that his father gave him a hundred dollars and carte blanche to do or die as he chose, a rather severe decision for a young man who had not reported his marriage.

Steffens stumbled into journalism in New York City, soon came to know the old regime of Wall Street, bearded J. P. Morgan in his den, and became a muckraker, as Theodore Roosevelt dubbed him, with Ray Stannard Baker and the rest of the brilliant magazine junto of the early twentieth century. The experiences with New York police grafters, with business barons, with old Doctor Parkhurst, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Croker, whom Steffens rather liked for his honest thievery, proved a second schooling and a preparation for the unparalleled exposures of the shame of American cities from Boston to San Francisco. When the tales of Saint Louis, of Minneapolis, Chicago, and Cincinnati corruption came into print, Steffens was a national figure, a reformer, as men were then willing to acknowledge themselves. He and Folk of Missouri, Filene of Boston, and the doubting Theodore, governor of New York, would put good men into office and remake the United States. But he found that Folk lost control in Saint Louis because of his good work; then he was elected governor of Missouri in order to finish reforming Saint Louis; but when the greater job as governor was under way, the people of Missouri grew doubtful of good work both in Saint Louis and the state. Good people did not exactly like corruption, but they feared the consequences of abolishing corruption. Folk was undone. Roosevelt, by an accident which looked like an intervention of Providence, assumed the presidential office and so, like the Kaiser, became the partner of God. But Roosevelt made a deal with Aldrich, whom Steffens knew as the Croker of Rhode Island; only Steffens liked the New Yorker better than the New Englander. In consequence Steffens bluntly, told Roosevelt that he was corrupt:

I accused him of bribery. He said I ought to be thrown into the street, but I said that it was he who had told me of his bribery. “I’ll not name names; I’ll leave blanks, or just omit details and say simply that you find that you have to buy votes in the senate and house.” He was appalled, almost speechless; his balled fists and wrenching arms wanted to express himself.

How the muckraker of Washington and the Rough Rider ironed out their quarrel, I leave the reader to work out of the pages of the autobiography.


Of the stormy and exciting days when “Providence” put another reformer in the White House and so made another American leader a partner of God himself, Steffens tells less than one might expect. As he does not give exact dates to many of his chapters and movements from city to city, I have been unable to ascertain his interest and activity in the movements of 1912. Did he, like his friend Baker, desert the “good” Roosevelt and join the “better” Wilson; or did he guess the other way? Nineteen hundred and twelve was a test year for all informed people of the United States then above twenty-one. The approaching war in Europe, the Madero revolution in Mexico, and the entanglements of oil men, ranchmen, and Villa, receive intelligent and revealing treatment; but in 1915 the muckraker came suddenly upon the War President, puzzled what to do and willing to listen to a man direct from any front where things were happening. Then, as if by accident, Steffens finds himself in Wilson’s study:

“Why didn’t you let me see you yesterday? You knew I had been down there on Carranza’s train and must have seen something of him and the facts.” The President replied: “An executive is a man of action. An intellectual, such as you and I, is inexecutive. In an executive job we are dangerous, unless we are aware of our limitations and take measures to stop our* disposition to think, to listen, to not act. I made up my mind long ago to open my mind for a while, hear everybody who came to see me and then to shut it up and act.”

Another revelation which the reader may follow up if he chooses.

But there were many other experiences, ramblings over Europe, contacts with the puzzled war leaders at the end of 1918, amusing experiences at Paris during the peace conferences, good humor all along, and perhaps a mellowing philosophy, of life, as I have already intimated. Only one other incident needs to be reported by way of making the character and interest of the book clear. At the opening of the conference in January, 1919, Wilson and Lloyd George agreed between them to send a secret mission to Lenin and ascertain what terms that cynical statesman would ask, if Bolshevik delegates were offered seats among the peacemakers. In the then state of world opinion, such a proposition would have had revolutionary effect if it had been given to the public. Steffens was chosen as a companion to William C. Bullitt, a state department attache and member of a famous Southern family, who was the head of the party. The story of this bootless effort is told in some detail: its methods of keeping under cover; its reception in Moscow; and its repudiation later in Paris. But the object was to get the Russians into the family of nations and get their support for the Wilson peace. Clemenceau made a scene when he heard of the overture; the London Times made an outcry, and Lloyd George hurried over to London to make apologies to the House of Commons and save his political existence. The New York Times carried a solemn monitory editorial about the tenth of January: Russia was not to have a seat in the conference; the French were, therefore, to have the dominating role; and the Wilson peace was to be repudiated. Toward the end of Wilson’s life the reviewer asked the ex-President what he hoped to do with the Russians at Paris. He did not remember anything about the mission.

This is perhaps enough to indicate what sort of an autobiography Mr. Steffens has put upon our shelves. It must take high rank as a source for the puzzling epoch through which we have stumbled. It is far better in this regard than “The Education of Henry Adams”; in its quality as solemn mentor and philosopher of life, one hardly knows what to say. Whether big business in the United States slowly is doing, through corruption and sheer domination, what Lenin and Trotzky started in Russia, is a question which sets one pondering. Here is the thesis with which the author closes his volumes:

The Bolsheviki destroyed the rising middle class of Russia, wiped out stocks and stockholders, and organized a society with a few clever men at the top, a small party at their backs, and the whole great mass of the Russian people at work, all guaranteed a place in society without pay. There was to be no favoritism, no profits, no priesthood, with only a few responsible, disinterested masters in control. Such in brief is Steffens’ Russia. The United States stands at the opposite pole. Great masses of people labor daily, depend on the ability of business men for their jobs; a smaller mass are independent, landlords, bondholders, and profiteers receiving returns from a system which able industrialists and sharp-witted inventors control, change, and remodel every decade; and finally the masters receive great profits, fight lively, and sometimes uncertain battles with stupid stockholders, restless workers, and lawmakers. In this situation, it is necessary to keep the peace. Under the constitution of 1787, designed for farmers and village folk, it is absolutely necessary to control politicians who do not understand the complex system; and who, if they did understand it, would not be able to make it plain to their constituents. There is only one way: that is to bribe as many as it is necessary to control. This is done by setting up city bosses who act as buffers between the people and legislatures; these bosses give little jobs, the necessary perquisites, and outright cash to the thousand and one key men who hold the parties together. This is expensive, but unavoidable. Hence the author frankly allows their system. He says little about the county courthouse cliques because he knows only the urban life of the country. There is no reference anywhere to the great and dismal rural life of the South. The present chaotic system Mr. Steffens thinks cannot last. Either the masses, hungry and unemployed, will sometime rise and overthrow it; or the great men of industry, like Henry Ford, having abolished stockholders through panics or foreign wars, will simply take over the political system and appoint managers. When this happens the United States will be analogous to Soviet Russia; and the systems of the two countries will be alike. A good book; an interesting career; and not an impossible philosophy.


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