The Menace of Privilege Chapter Six second part
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.
Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.
end of CHAPTER 6, AMUSEMENTS, DISSIPATIONS AND MARITAL RELATIONS
Focus on Women
Time was when the universal habit in the Eastern and Middle States followed St. Paul’s precept, “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” There was no such occupation as “gentleman.” But in the circle of Privilege this is passing. Where the public marriage license asks for statement of the occupation of the groom, and of the fathers of the contracting parties, more and more frequently the word “gentleman” is written in.
Is it strange, then, that with nothing serious to engage them, and with great riches at their command, these princelings should fall into the arms of deadly dissipations?
And if it is so with the sons of our Princes of Privilege, what of the daughters?
Fifty years ago the keen French observer and commentator, De Tocqueville, paid our women the highest tribute. After citing the fact that adultery was a crime punishable with death in colonial Connecticut and Massachusetts, he said: “If I were asked . . . to what the singular prosperity and growing strength” of the people of the United States “ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women . . . No free communities ever existed without morals, and morals are the work of w omen . . . There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.” (‘”Democracy in America” (1898), Vol. I, pp.46, 389, and Vol.11, p. 2 62.)
This was written before the advent in America of great fortunes from special privileges. Our people then were far, far more homogeneous than they are now. The multimillionaire was very rare, and on the other hand De Tocqueville said he never met with a lackey in the United States; that all regarded themselves as equal citizens of the Commonwealth — as men. ( “Democracy in America,” Vol.11, pp.215-217.) Of course an aristocratic feeling did to some degree exist. But it was not marked as to fortune or to outward bearing. De Tocqueville knew of the effects of the fruit of the evil tree of aristocracy on women as well as on men, and he plainly specified them: –
- Among aristocratic nations, birth and fortune make two such different beings of men and women, that they can never be united to each other. Their passions draw them together, but the conditions of society, and the notions suggested by it, prevent them fr om contracting a permanent and ostensible tie. The necessary consequence is a great number of transient and clandestine connections. Nature secretly avenges herself for the constraint imposed upon her by the laws of man.( “Democracy in America;” Vol.11, p.250.)
Does not this aptly describe much that we see in the “smart set” of our aristocracy of privilege? The old true love, the deep love, the love rooted in respect, seems to be going out of date among our princes. Power, money; money, power: that is the thing most thought of and talked of. Money seeks money in marriage. Or, surrounded by all that money can suppl y, the daughters of our Princes of Power yearn for the regalia of Princes of Title. Their eyes turn abroad, and many of them marry English, French, German, Austrian, Russian, Italian and Spanish coronets.
There are doubtless among these foreign nobles men of estimable character and parts. But waiving the question of departure from democratic-republican principles, the too frequent tale of infelicity and separation makes such matches as a rule unwholesome. For that matter, nuptial alliances made at home or abroad seem, as a rule, to have much the same result among our Princes of Privilege, – unhappiness, divorce.
A cynic, touching upon superficial aspects, remarks that the prevalence of divorce among the privileged class comes from dancing the fashionable cotillion; that in that dance the young women become fascinated with the idea of changing partners, and they a pply it to marriage. One case of rapid change of marital partners filled the press of the country and excited much caustic comment. The sister of Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt was in the course of fifty minutes divorced from Mr. Arthur T. Kemp and married to Mr. Hollis T. Hunnewell. This occurred at Newport, and Justice Dubois of the Appellate division of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island broke the old and sealed the new bond. Dr. Felix Adler has cited a woman who has been divorced and remarried five times, being twice married and twice divorced from one man.
Now the weakness or sins of divorce in this country are not to be laid solely at the door of Princes of Privilege. We know full well that our churches are profoundly disturbed over the alarming increase of the evil among all but the very lowest classes of this country. The truth seems to be that divorces are not only more numerous in the United States in proportion to marriages than in any other country showing records, but that they are rapidly increasing.(According to Mr. W. F. Wilcox in “The Divorce P roblem,” in 1870 the relation of divorces to marriages was 3.5 per cent; in 188o, 4.8 per cent; in 1890, 6.2 per cent. According to the 1900 United States Census report the proportion of divorces to marriages in 1890 was 5 per cent; in 1900, 7 per cent.) And this increase is occurring in face of the growing stringency of the laws. There were sixty thousand divorces in the United States in 1903.
“Thirty years ago divorce was hardly ever talked about,” said Rev. Dr. Leighton Parks recently, from his pulpit in St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal church, New York City. “We scarcely knew of a case that had occurred among respectable people. But to-day it ha s usurped the center of the stage. It is the problem of the novel; it is the subject of conversation at the dinner party; it is talked over between mother and child; it clamors in the police courts; it demands that legislators change the laws; and it con fuses the councils of the Church. It would seem at times as if marriage had disappeared, and that the chief human interest was divorce.”
So far is this from being an exaggeration that many gravely discuss the feasibility of the proposal made by the veteran English novelist, Mr. George Meredith that marriage be made a brief-term contract, instead of for life. Others think the marriage and divorce laws should be strengthened, and we find the President of the United States calling the attention of Congress to the “dangerously lax and indifferently administered” divorce laws in some of the States, and expressing the hope that “cooperation amo ng the several States can be secured to the end that there may be enacted upon the subject . . . uniform laws.” (Presidential message, January 30, 1905.)
Now if divorce is so general and increasing, what is its cause? It must be general. It cannot lie in the lack of uniformity or indifferent administration of divorce laws. For, as Mr. Louis F. Post truly observes in a most suggestive little book on the di vorce problem (“Ethical Principles of Marriage and Divorce”), the ceremonial of marriage is not marriage proper, but the “symbol,” or “outward proof” of it. The real marriage is the establishing of a relationship of love. Each must be in love with the h igher intellectual qualities and the deeper moral impulses of the other.
But it is a part of ancient wisdom that “love flies out of the window when poverty enters the door.” So that the continuance of love depends in no small degree upon keeping poverty at a distance. If poverty be not kept away, love may vanish; and with lo ve gone, many of those bound by wedlock will want separation, and many will endeavor to get it either by help of a divorce law, or in spite of it.
That is to say, the prevalence and increase of divorces does not lie primarily in loose divorce laws or lax administration, for if marriage unions were happy, permission freely to separate would have no effect upon the bonds of love. The cause is social. It is the offspring of Privilege, which intoxicates some and kills happiness in others by holding them threateningly upon the brink of ruin. The harassing dread of many even in good circumstances is that in the upheavals and overthrows constantly occurr ing under present social conditions, they will be reduced to the straits of poverty.
But the Princes of Privilege, while always on the defensive for their special advantages, are little subject to the unhappiness that springs from fear of poverty. The main cause of divorces among them is the antithesis of want or its fear. Their ills ar e not the lean ills of scarcity, but the fat ills of superabundance. Possessing privileges that lift them in wealth and power above the mass of their fellows, these favored ones are prone to feel more or less exempted from many of the common social rules . Among these exemptions they set various obligations governing matrimony. Increasing numbers enter wedlock lightly; they hold it lightly. They come by degrees to regard themselves as Napoleon said of himself: “I am not an ordinary, but an extraordinar y man. Ordinary rules of conduct, therefore, do not apply to me.”
And the worst of it is that if open divorces are rapidly increasing, there is graver suspicion that secret connubial inconstancy is still more general. Yet it must be borne in mind that the startling change of manners in the country with respect to happi ness, sanctity and permanence of marriage does not arise from any antecedent characteristic, but from Privilege, which harries many into unhappiness and pampers others into false notions.
And just as the marriage tie is coming to be held lightly, so the fruit of marriage is coming to be lightly regarded. There is a diminution in the number of births in the households of our princes.
Yet let us not make false assumptions. Births in the natural order of things, and taken as a whole, cannot occur haphazard. Nature must surely govern generation by law, just as she governs every other province of her vast domains. She appears to bring twenty-one boy babies into the world for every twenty girl babies. Likewise she appears to provide that there shall be increased births when the life of the race is threatened either by sparsity of population or by poverty, disease or other adverse condi tion in a dense population.
Reversely, Nature seems to provide that when the perpetuity of the race is assured, there shall be diminished births.
This is apart from conscious human direction. It indicates a natural law — a law that accords with and is subordinate to intellectual development. Where intellectual development is low, as in sparse or in slum populations, Nature begets many children. Where intellectual development is high, as among the classes of material ease and comfort, Nature brings forth fewer children. This is not to say that intellectual development suggests artificial checks on generation. It may; but aside from that, Nature herself, automatically — acting without conscious direction of human will — appears to lessen births, probably by bringing into play subtle differentiations and refinements, and also probably by opening up new realms that invite and absorb the mind’s at tention.
This appears to be the result where Nature is allowed to take her course. Hence we should expect to find, not invariably, but on the average, more births to a marriage on the lower East Side of New York City than in the better sections. But what we find is more than this. The birth rate on the lower East Side, while high, is normal for that social condition. But there is more than a normal diminution among all the classes above the very poor elsewhere. And this diminution is progressing.
This marked falling off in the rate of births cannot be due to natural causes. Its cause must be artificial. However reluctantly, we are forced to the conclusion of New York State’s recent Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Cyrus Edson, and must admit that the cause is “voluntary avoidance and prevention.”
To what is this due? With the middle class it is due, I believe, to the cause which is increasing divorces. That cause in most instances is the intensifying financial strain in keeping up with a former, or in rising to a newly conceived, standard of livi ng. Where this is not so, the cause is to be found in the constant heart-racking and mindracking dread of financial losses, and the deprivations that that would involve. Hence refusal to give “hostages to fortune” in the persons of children.
This practice of “race” or class suicide among what we call our “comfortable classes” in itself denotes anything but a healthy social condition in the Republic. But what shall we say respecting the diminishing birth-rate among our Princes of Privilege? T heir great wealth lifts them above the fear of poverty. With them children would not be “hostages to fortune.” There superabundance is assured for the largest families possible. If “voluntary avoidance and prevention” is practiced among the middle clas ses because of social straits or fear of being reduced to poverty, it would seem to be practiced among the princes for far different reasons. Is the chief one desire for freedom to cast themselves into the arms of frivolity and voluptuous indulgence?
Next week — the economics of aristocracy.
Privilege and poverty have ruined many souls in America. The author’s alarm over a divorce rate of 5% sounds quaint in the 1990s. What’s your reaction to this chapter? Tell it to The Progress Report!