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Captains Uncourageous

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

No nation, at least, no civilization, can endure without honor—an honor that transcends the mercantile standard of paying debts, perhaps, under the forms of law provided by lenient bankruptcy acts. Long ago, John Ruskin made this perfectly clear in a little volume entitled “Unto This Last,” a collection of essays on political economy destined to be cherished while the language in which it was written continues on earth. Now the honor to which he refers contains in it elements far beyond the calculations recorded in ledgers and registers—a poignant sense of human responsibility and a firm conception of what is proper and fitting on all occasions. And in illustrating his contention, Ruskin descends to concrete cases, comparing the merchant, the soldier, the physician, and the priest.

He opens by inquiring why it is that the profession of commerce is generally held in lower esteem than that of arms. Philosophically, he admits, it does not seem reasonable that “a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an un-peaceable and often irrational person whose trade is slaying.” Yet the consent of mankind gives precedence to the soldier, and rightly; for, while the warrior is engaged in the business of killing, his trade involves also the peril of being slain. It is for this that mankind does him homage. It knows that he is often a reckless person, fond of rum and riot, and beset by mean impulses, but it is also profoundly convinced that when in a fortress breach “with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front.” In the presence of man’s most dread specter, he does not issue a new block of stocks or go into bankruptcy. He stands and dies.

From the soldier, Ruskin passes to the lawyer and physician. They, too, enjoy honor in their own land. When we engage a lawyer he does not issue to us a warning, caveat emptor, and we believe that, having received his retainer, he will not sell us out but will apply his talents to our interest. Nor would we respect him if we thought that, placed in the judge’s seat, he would accept bribes, render iniquitous decisions, and set the making of personal gains as his goal. “In the case of a physician, the ground of the honor we render him is clearer still. Whatever his science, we would shrink from him in horror if we found him regard his patients as mere subjects to experiment upon; much more, if we found that, receiving bribes from persons interested in their deaths, he was using his best skill to give poison in the mask of medicine.” And then the clergyman? Whatever may be said of his intellectual powers he is respected “on the presumed ground of his unselfishness and serviceableness.” It is not the fat bishop flushed with wine and swollen with meat that the Church delights to honor in the long run of years, but the saint of sacrifice and tears.

With this preliminary, Ruskin then inquires into the position of the merchant. Why is he not granted the honor of the soldier? Ruskin makes his answer. The merchant openly announces that he is in a game to make money or to get it. “The merchant’s first object in all his dealings must be (the public believe) to get as much for himself, and leave as little to his neighbor (or customer) as possible.” The merchant’s moral law is to buy, in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest, to get as much as he can for the smallest amount of his commodity. If that is not the mercantile law, then what is it? The universal chorus of business is, Ruskin thinks: “Hail, hail, we are all here to make money.”

To apply the term “captain” to a master of industry who has this for his national anthem, Ruskin believes, is almost blasphemy. An army captain, finding himself in a hot place with shells and bullets flying around, does not strike out for the rear and leave his men to make the best of danger and death. He sticks by them, sharing their hardships and perils. Nor does the captain of a ship, battered by storm and sinking in a remorseless sea, rush first to the lifeboats, deserting his men, abandoning them to their fate. According to this line of reasoning Ruskin would allow an industrialist to call himself a “captain” only when he felt bound in time of depression, panic, and ruin, to divide the last crust with his workers, to share their suffering, to help carry their distress, even “as a father would in a famine, shipwreck, or battle, sacrifice himself for his son.” In other words, Ruskin attempts to carry over into the domain of economy, the ethics of honor, to insert a sacrificial sense of responsibility into the calculations of trade, and demand of the merchant the heroic spirit of the soldier marching as to war. In justice, it should be said that all the practical men of his generation hooted, crying “What are we here for?”


Now strange as it may seem, long before Ruskin made his weird plea for an economy of ethics, a number of Southern gentlemen of the old school took the same attitude to the mercantile craft, with a more substantial interest in the background. The coldest and most logical of them, Calhoun, was frank in admitting that exploitation was the basis of civilization as then practised and understood. “There has never existed,” he said, “a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.” That confession, he thought, was good for the soul and cleared the way for a realistic consideration of the merits of slavery and capitalism. If open to glosses on grounds of validity, it was at least pertinent to the argument which Calhoun had in mind.

With a certain deference for Northern mill owners, Calhoun proceeded to make the contrast between the slave system of the South and the capitalist system—of Europe. He felt warranted in inclining the balance of exploitation in favor of “the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European.” At all events, he thought that there were in the slave scheme some elements of humanity not to be overlooked by political economy. “I may say with truth,” he continued, “that in few countries is so much left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted of him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or the infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poorhouses in the more civilized portions of Europe —look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on the one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.” Naturally, like the orator bent on making his case, Calhoun idealized the system he was defending, but he felt that in any case there was some sense of ultimate responsibility, and humanity in its mode of exploitation.

As the great conflict of the forum deepened in intensity, defenders of slavery spoke less euphemistically of European comparisons, and boldly challenged Northern capitalism itself as lacking in the very humanity so often cited in its attacks upon the planting order. The Congressional Globe is sown with speeches representing the capitalist as “enriching himself upon the plunder exacted from labor,” as swelling the fortunes and ministering to the enjoyments and luxuries of the few, as grinding labor down under the weight of “the most dreary of all despotisms—that of capital,” and as a scheme of exploitation which offered no palliations. Speaking of laborers under the regime of “freedom,” Miles Taylor, of Louisiana, asked, on March 29, 1858: “When there is no work for them, or they are unable to work, no matter from what cause, what then?” He answered: “Why, sir, they are left naked and helpless in the stern grip of that relentless, unpitying foe, which never, for one moment, ceases to keep close upon their track—grim, remorseless, exterminating want,” Coming down to cases, Lucius J, Gartrell, of Georgia, cited a legislative report on pauperism in New York, not “for the purpose of displaying the misery, the woe, the destitution, and the want, of the poorer classes of the North. God knows they, have my sympathy and my commiseration. . . . I have read this extract, not to bring a blush to the face of my Northern friends; I read it in sorrow. I have read it, however, with the hope that I might thereby encourage them to begin the good work at home; that I might thereby assist in relieving the poor and miserable and destitute there, by reminding our friends that charity begins at home.”

In antithesis, Southern orators argued, their scheme of exploitation included responsibilities for the laborer. “In the Southern system of society,” urged a speaker from Virginia, “the laborer is sure of shelter, of raiment, and of food; for if the profits of the master do not enable him to give these, the master must use his capital; and if neither his profits nor his capital will allow him to do it, then he must transfer him to someone else who is able to provide him with these comforts; and thus in any event the laborer is assured of the physical comforts and necessaries of life.” Mr. Gartrell, after citing the legislative report on Northern destitution, inquired: “Where, in the South, Mr. Chairman, could we find misery and want and wretchedness and destitution like that reported by this able and intelligent committee of the Legislature of New York? Go to the negro plantation, if you please, and what will you find? Health, plenty to eat, good clothes, comfortable beds, and but one family in a house. You will ransack even the pages of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and you will find no picture of misery and destitution which will compare with that portrayed in the extract which I have just read.” “Neither the vicissitudes of trade, the uncertainty of the seasons, nor deficient harvest,” defenders of slavery were wont to say, deprived the bondman of food, clothing, shelter, certainty, security, and “the little comforts and pleasures that cheer his humble lot in life.” If one master blew up in time of stress and lost his profits and his capital, the slave was not turned out to starve but was transferred to another master able to bear the brunt of the storm. Such was the grand argument presented in behalf of “the peculiar institution.”


Of course the modern psychologist, familiar with argumentation, may say that this is all pure ideology, protective coloration, defense mechanism, afterthought, and vicarious assumption of virtue. In the assertion there is probably so much truth that human nature can scarcely endure the thought. The student of history, looking with calm, untroubled eye on the faded and yellow pages of The Congressional Globe, may comment that judgment is none of his business, even though in the deeps of his soul he suspects that it may be a case of the kettle and the pot. Yet as he closes the chapter and watches the terrible denouement of 1865, he cannot fail to take note that in the fateful hour of desperation, when Northern armies were pulling down the planting system amid the roar of guns and the flames of burning mansions, when arms were wrested from masters, when their State crumbled, yea, amid the very wreck and havoc of war, the overwhelming majority of Southern slaves, out of loyalty, or sense of gratitude, or affection, or some other quality of the spirit, remained faithful to those who exploited—and fed—them. At all events, if filled with resentment and hatred, they did not fall upon their rulers with faggot and sword. Should history be regarded as philosophy teaching by examples, that is a permanent entry upon the record kept by watchful Clio, to whom powers, principalities, hope, despair, and faith are but data for remembrance.

If psychologists laugh and historians plod on their weary way as before, what must the artist in statecraft say? He cannot escape by calling names or dodging judgments. He is confronted by contingencies and must choose. For him there is no other lamp than the lamp of experience. He relies upon loyalties and must pursue a course which develops them, if he expects the Ship of State to weather the periodic gales that burst upon it from the wrathful heavens. Can he demand stern duty in the rank and file if he stays on the bridge only in fair weather and clambers down to launch out in a lifeboat at the first sign of a squall? This question runs deeper than matters of “personnel administration” and “works management.” It must be faced in Soviet Russia, federated America, and groaning Europe. If the fire of responsibility be quenched and the loyalty of requited toil be destroyed, in what alembic can they be restored? That is of greater significance to masters of political economy than any theory, of marginal utility or any graph of car loadings and foreign exchange.


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