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Studies in Domesticated Aggression

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

The President Makers. By Matthew Josephson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.75. The Pattern of Politics. By J. T. Salter. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.25. The Boss. By D. D. McKean. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

Politics, among other things, is a form of domesticated aggression. For the instruments employed in aggression’s more savage stage, such as the bob and the spear, the tribes Republican and Democratic have substituted verbal tomahawks and rhetorical cleavers—to say nothing of tomatoes, cantaloupes, and hard-boiled eggs, which represent, as it were, a fall from domesticated grace. The donkey and the elephant are far more than cartoonists’ devices; they are, in an anthropological sense, semi-sacred totems.

Mr. Matthew Josephson, whose book, “The President Makers,” is a major contribution to our literature of domesticated aggression and totemic behavior, is one of the foremost of unorthodox historians—unorthodox in the sense that he would not be overly reluctant to subscribe to the late Ernst Toller’s statement, made in the latter’s amusing anti-Fascist play, that “All history is the propaganda of the victorious.” Mr. Josephson, beginning with “The Robber Barons,” has been busy at the task of taking the propaganda of the victorious to pieces. “The President Makers” is the latest step in that process; and while the general scheme of the book is built around the lives of those men who have operated behind the American presidential throne—Hanna, Harvey, House, —it is not so much biography as a study of the whole pattern of American life and politics from 1896 to 1919.

By the time he gets finished—and there are times when his ability to keep great slabs of facts, figures, and incidents in motion is something wonderful to behold—very little so-called “formal” history is left. One reads Mr. Josephson with interest and profit always. There are times, however, as in his chapters on the famous Ballinger case, when one wonders if he has not been somewhat betrayed by his own zeal and integrity, by his deep conviction in the “scientific” validity of the theory of economic determinism.

Mr. Josephson calls the Ballinger case “An American Affaire Dreyfus.” Its manifold ramifications cannot be gone into here, but, as the story is retold by the author, every jot and shred of evidence points conclusively to Ballinger’s guilt. Mr. Josephson leaves one with the feeling that Ballinger, because of the obscure workings of that destiny called economic determinism, could have acted in no other way save a dishonorable one; he could not have been anything else but guilty. One listens to the author as one might listen to a great criminal lawyer building up an air-tight case. And yet, at the end, one is still faced with the fact—apparently overlooked by Mr. Josephson—that Ballinger has been pronounced not guilty by no less a person than Mr. Harold L. Ickes, after an exhaustive study of official records; and Mr. Ickes, certainly, is not one of those persons anxious to bolster the propaganda of the victorious.

This is not to deny the worth of the economic interpretation of history. It is simply to point out that the theory of economic determinism cannot be regarded as a scientific “law” safeguarded against error. Mr. Josephson will very properly deny that he so regards it, that he looks upon the economic interpretation of history as the only true gospel. One wishes, then, that he had observed the men and events of 1896-1919 from the wider field of vision—a field, that is, in which man moves as a more or less irrational animal rather than as a wholly rational one.

Mr. J. T. Salter, in “The Pattern of Politics,” takes a faltering step in the latter direction. His method verges on the anthropological, but he falls into the fundamental error of supposing that the pattern of politics can be separated from the larger pattern of American life—and he is terribly, terribly naive. In what is presumably intended to be a serious book about American politics, it is slightly startling to find such observations as “Roosevelt illustrates another characteristic found in a leader. He usually says the things that are immediately pleasing and acceptable to the people. This may be a mark of intelligence and strength or it may indicate a weak will.” Mr. Salter, who is Associate Professor of Political Science in the University of Wisconsin, should save such remarks for his classroom. He really and truly should.

Mr. Dayton D. McKean’s “The Boss,” the story of New Jersey’s mayor, Frank Hague, serves as a kind of extended footnote to “The President Makers.” Mr. McKean, who has been a member of the New Jersey House of Assembly, traces the workings of the Hague machine with a patience that is almost Germanic. His book is valuable in that it exposes the Hague machine with all the authority of a Federal agent revealing the falsifications of an income-tax evader, but in its over-seriousness it makes a fairly exciting subject dull. The author is too profoundly shocked by his subject’s nefarious doings ever to see him in his proper proportion—the proportion, no more, no less, of a gin-mill mug. It should be recorded, somewhere, that Mayor Hague is the last of a vanishing type of American. His fleet of homes, his boyish enthusiasm for carrying around $1000 bills, his “I have wents” and “They shouldn’t come in there with any purpose of aggravating and disturbing the peace and quietness of the city”— all this will be of great value to the future social historian. Of all the old-time city bosses, only Frank Hague and the equally bizarre “Mister Ed” Crump of Memphis remain. As Mr. Josephson reminds us, they and their fellows played a large role in our political history. They were the lesser imitators of Mark Hanna, helping to make or break Presidents, and soon they will be as extinct as the ivory-billed woodpecker. One is not reluctant to see them go; but one is compelled to confess a greater liking for them than for their modern counterparts. They never hesitated to say, like Pop-eye the Sailor, “I yam what I yam.” And they never pretended, in private or in public, to bleed for the cause of truth, justice, and humanity.

Those who find pleasure or comfort in the thought that democracy has failed, those who long for the “authority” and “order” of Berlin or Moscow, will find much in “The President Makers” and “The Boss” to bolster their conclusions. Nor is it possible to deny that the dream of Thomas Jeiferson corresponds but vaguely to the architecture of reality. The President makers, however, are only bilge in the ship of state. The ship itself is still afloat—shipping water, perhaps, tossing and groaning in a stormy time, lit by the flashes of a sullen war, but still carrying the best hopes and aspirations of all mankind.


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