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Mechanics of the Leviathan

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

The American Leinathan: The Republic in the Machine Age. By Charles A. Beard and William Beard. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00.

When Charles and Mary Beard finished some years ago their collaboration on “The Rise of American Civilization,” they, accomplished a very fine and homely dramatization of succeeding American scenes. The reader moved from period to period of our history, at home, knowing what groups he or she would have been identified with, born fifty, a hundred, or more years ago, what newspapers he or she would have read, what plays admired or been able to afford, how felt on national issues as they arose. Always there was Charles Beard, the economist as well as historian, telling a story, and Mary Beard’s special gusto and curiosity packing the definition of civilization with the modes of daily common life.

This new collaboration of Charles Beard with his son is no less enriching to the reader, and broadening in its concept of the historian’s task. Had one the time, and serious students will take the time, it would be interesting to compare Professor Beard’s “American Government and Politics,” written before the war, and the radio, and the power trust, and the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and prohibition, with “The American Leviathan.” For certainly the former book is incorporated in this one. With his son, not long since graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Beard has looked again at the material of American history, and together they have rewoven a tapestry, of American records in which the very warp is the growing number of machines functioning in production and consumption, altering human relations by separating men, and equally bringing them together.

What Henry Adams, in the, mystical chapter called “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in “The Education,” faintly posed as the American dilemma is what the Beards contemplate also: a political, economic, and social life quickened by a vast new source of energy, complicated past the power of the old words to describe. They abandon poetry. In painstaking, elaborate, often sluggish prose, they describe the rise of a society whose problems are increasingly demanding expert technologists for their solution. They describe one thousand and one problems and ten thousand and ten solutions. They walk round and round and round the national government. They recall old models, and trips and tasks the old models performed. They try gears. They explain. They crawl under. They are wary, of exciting the suspicion of the technological society in which they live. They spin very few prophecies. They are almost dull in their avoidance of revolutionary or visionary aims. The reader walks at their heels and crawls under beside them, and experiences what the father and son had warned them of at the start. Government is not “a machine” but a “cultural complex.” As in the Sylvie and Bruno rhymes, one looks, and looks again.

Not common sense, nor good intentions, nor enlightened self-interest, nor democratic idealism, nor historic morals are competent any longer to exert themselves at the steering wheel. Leviathan, machine or complex, is too big and too little understood by laymen to be moved. And yet it does move under the touch of the competent rather than the wise. And by the competent, they mean the experienced, those who have an instinctive as well as a book acquaintance with the machinery which manifolds our living.

The Beards will forgive me if I make note that their volume has the very heft of a Sears Roebuck catalogue; it advertises to the citizens all the available parts of the political process. This enumeration, plus the negative, the positive-negative reiteration of the elder Beard that the technological society has. as yet produced no philosophy with which to simplify and motivate itself, is the beginning of a philosophy of competence. To catalogue what we have on hand in the way of tools and to tip us off that most of the words in our political vocabulary describe horses and not tractors, is to start us toward taking it easier in a “techsoc” (technological society). The Beards do all of that, and if the witty skeptic who wrote so well in the earlier days, when it looked simpler to him than the machine age of 1931 now does, warns us against an old vocabulary, rather than furnishes us with new words or slogans to action, it may very well be his precise intention to take us so far, and no farther. This solid description of complexity already simplifies the picture.

No book yet published by American scholars is so ample in its survey of the character and function of the government as a whole and all its parts. At first the reader seems on tried ground. The introductory chapters on the Constitution and its interpretation, and on the fundamental principles of the federal system, on through Parties and Opinions, on through Taxation, Finance, and Supplies, seem to be the customary chapter heads, but everywhere the constant awareness of the changing technical equipment of government puts the feel of a new trail under the reader. The later chapters, with their detailed accounts of government bureaus of health, the Bureau of Standards, and so forth, provide livelier reading to those acquainted with either bol-shevist or fascist practice and philosophy than to untravelled explorers of the home scene. The pictures given of the American machinery become moving pictures of what can or might or “ought” to be done with the tools in Washington. This is a secondary pleasure to be had from the Beards’ contribution. As with the Sears Roebuck catalogue, where to read is enough though to buy, is inevitable. A certain measure of political competence is the reader’s inevitable reward.


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