Chapter 1, Bill Sharp © April 1, 2020
Ralph Borsodi was born, according to his draft registration, 20 December 1888 in Vienna, Austria. He arrived in New York about his fifth year. His father, William Borsodi, was born in 1858 in Hungary, immigrated to the US probably in 1889 and was naturalized August 1896. William Borsodi was a successful printer, magazine publisher and an expert in advertising. He published a number of advertising guides for different businesses (available on Amazon). Borsodi’s mother apparently died in Europe. William married Laura Cahen in July 1898 in Manhattan (she died April 1949). Ralph apparently had two half-brothers, Albert A. Borsodi, born 1899, NY, died August 1934, NYC; and William Howard Borsodi, born 1901 in NYC. Also found in the census record was an uncle, Morris Borsodi, a musician, born 1868, Hungary, who married Anna V. Ungar, 28 April 1936, Bronx, New York.
My guess is that coming from eastern Europe, their names were anglicized as was common with immigrants.
Ralph first appeared in the US in the 1900 census as a boarding scholar at the Gerlach academy in New Jersey along with his brother Victor Howard who was born 26 August 1885 in Austria. Both, the census record stated, had been in the US for seven years. Victor later moved to Houston, Texas before 1917, and was a “U.S. Government Contractor.” He became a successful Texas oilman and a founder of the Humble Oil corporation.
Borsodi’s time at Gerlach Academy may have been his only formal schooling. The Academy, incorporated in 1895 by A. D. Gerlach, was located next to the ocean in a large building that had once been a “Queen Anne” style hotel. It was advertised as a military boarding school to “prepare for American and European Universities.” Another advertisement stated: “Getting ready for the battle of life includes something more than mental equipment …. It means the training of boyhood into noble manhood.”
No instructor had more than six pupils in a class. Tuition was $500 per year for year-round boarding with vacations at Christmas and Easter. It should be noted that $500 in 1900 was about the average annual income in the US and the equivalent of over $15,000 in 2020. Since William had both of his sons there, it would be assumed he was doing well in business. Parents were expected to take Thanksgiving dinner with the headmasters, instructors and pupils at the school. Pupils were required to write weekly to their parents. They wore uniforms, arose with a bugle call at 6:00 AM to fall into line in the upper hall. No disobedience or insubordination was tolerated. The school building later burned to the ground in 1908 and most of the records were lost.
Ralph began asserting his independence at an early age. By 1903, when he was 15, he had his own apartment in New York City. He apparently didn’t get along with his stepmother. She was too rigid, he said. The father was often away on business. Ralph learned typesetting, publication and advertising and earned his living working for his father’s business.
In 1910, at age 21, Borsodi’s father sent Ralph to Rice, Texas (near Dallas) to dispose of several hundred acres of land. While there Borsodi bought and edited a local newspaper and used it to discuss the land problem. William, who had worked in land reform in Hungary, was a serious follower of the American economist Henry George (more below). Ralph was also heavily engaged with the movement and met many of its leaders.
After the Borsodi land in Texas was sold, Ralph returned to NYC. This was about the time Ralph met Myrtle Mae and they were married in 1911. Myrtle Mae, born and raised on a farm in Iowa, had moved to New York City and was working at the William Borsodi company.
During the 1920s Ralph began working as a consulting economist in New York City. Some of his clients were Wall Street brokers and investors. As an expert on marketing and distribution, he established himself as a cost accountant. Cost accounting was then not only in demand by business but also by radical economists. Cost accountants laid the foundation of the consumer movement.
In 1917 Ralph registered for the draft. He was 5’10”, 150 pounds and had no disabilities. He was passed over for selection likely for his age (approaching 30) and two children. His occupation was listed as: Advertising Writer, Self-Employed, 28 East 23rd Street. He then lived at 440 West 25th Street, New York, NY – just a short walk from his office.
There has been some speculation about Borsodi’s religious background although it appears throughout his life he was essentially an atheist. One writer suggested a Jewish heritage. Since his father died in Europe, we have no record of his burial. Perhaps only by coincidence we often find the Borsodi name listed in American obituaries as Catholic. His brother Victor was married and buried as a Presbyterian.
It is reported that William went to Hungary in 1919 for reasons unknown and did not return to the US. The business went to Ralphs half-brother William and continued to prosper after the elder William left. Ralph, as noted, was already engaged in business as an economist and was beginning to realize his vision of homesteading. In 1920 the Borsodis bought first seven and then an addition 12-18 acres in Ramapo Township, a few miles from Suffern, NY. A short walk from the railroad station, the Suffern location gave him ready access to his professional work in NYC.
In 1922 Ralph published a successful book, The New Accounting, written to help small businesses achieve greater self-reliance in the management of their finances. The book led to an offer by a textile fashion publisher, E. L. Fairchild, and Ralph worked for them for at least six years. In 1928 he started the Borsodi Analytical Bureau, which conducted economic analysis, developed forecasts and presented business seminars.
In 1923 Borsodi became a pioneer of consumer advocacy when he wrote a critique of the American advertising industry in his book National Advertising Versus Prosperity. In 1927 he wrote The Distribution Age, a critique of the massive factory system that had grown up before, during and following World War I. He asserted that both advertising and distribution of goods add significantly and unnecessarily to consumer cost and reduces the quality of goods.
Here is an interesting item about Borsodi from an article, “The New Trend in Distribution” in The Journal of the American Statistical Association, 1929.
“One of the most successful dinner meetings of the New York Branch of the American Statistical Association was held at the Fraternity Club, New York City, on October 17, 1929. Over 300 were present.
“Mr. Ralph Borsodi, director of the Fairchild Analytical Bureau, spoke on the critical phase of mass distribution. One of the chief points that Mr. Borsodi brought out in his discussion was that the chain store has no monopoly and that the merged or consolidated organizations in the past have been successful largely due to monopoly control. This has been particularly true in the previous periods of consolidations, characterized first by the Standard Oil Company of 1870 and second by the United State Steel Corporation in 1897. Both these corporations grew to their present magnitude largely due to monopoly control which is lacking in the chain store development.
“Mr. Borsodi stated that the mass distributors have not the mines, patents, franchises or trademarks to protect them, as is the case of monopoly in the production field. He further contended that scientific management is essential and necessary to any successful development in the chain store field.
I found the “Borsodi Analytical Bureau” cited in other articles in 1929, 1931 and 1932.
Ralph Borsodi was an extraordinary personality. He was of average height, slightly built and balding. He had presence, a steady gaze, a resonate and commanding voice with a slight eastern European accent. He was brilliant, well-informed, and articulate. He was a voracious reader with a retentive mind, absorbed details quickly and summarized vast bodies of work. His attention to detail could be exhausting. He was passionate; you might say, driven. He was a man of integrity and principles – he clearly believed in what he offered. He was morally driven. He was a humanitarian, polite, thoughtful and compassionate, but he could be direct and candid and could be devasting in debate. He was a man of action and prone to act decisively. He had enduring friendships and was respected by many distinguished persons. He was an indominable experimenter and innovator and often faced disappointment and frustration, but he always shrugged off setbacks and went on to the next project. He reportedly retained these qualities to the end of his life.
In 1929 Borsodi published a keystone book: This Ugly Civilization, in which he wrote three important themes. First was a summary critique of American urban industrial society. Second, the first public report of his homesteading experience. Third, the idea of an educational program to help people achieve a good life.
Borsodi firmly believed industrial civilization has an ugly side; actually, several ugly aspects. Factories tended to be ugly by nature; industry pillaged the environment, and cities were squalid. Industry also has an ugly social aspect. It wasn’t the machine itself to which he objected, but rather the effect on society due to the abuses of the machine and factory system. Borsodi saw the lives of the workers consumed by this system and the lives of the citizens who became dependent upon the products. Borsodi already saw American capitalism moving towards crisis and this book, published just before the onset of the Great Depression, warned of its coming.
Borsodi reported the results of his family’s experience homesteading in some detail and made an attractive case for living on the land. This is the part of the book that seems to have inspired the most people who read it. As an economist and accountant, he presented the numbers and proved that a family could readily produce food and other household products in less time than it would take to earn the money to buy them with the added benefit that the quality was better, and the pride and satisfaction are in themselves rewards.
Borsodi was the pioneer in appropriate technology, decades ahead of E. F. Schumacher. He ran an electric power line to the house, bought appliances and attached motors to a number of farm machines. The first of these was a small mill for grinding flour and animal feed. He installed an electric pump at the well and indoor plumbing when that was rare in old farms. His objective was to take the drudgery out of chores.
Borsodi’s homestead ideal was a place close to a town or city where work could be found. Suffern was then only a half hour commute from New York city (less than half of what it is today). We know that Borsodi continued to work in business until at least 1934 when he opened his School of Living near the homestead at Suffern.
The Education of a “Libertarian” Radical
The core of Borsodi’s work was education. Learning was always a major part of his life. Like many others of the time, he believed that people had lost understanding of the virtues that defined traditional culture. To restore it required aproper education. He devoted a large part of This Ugly Civilization to education.
It has become clear to me there was an underlying ideal in Borsodi’s system about the individual’s capacity to lead a self-reliant life. It wasn’t a utopian ideal; it was rather something he and others felt lost in the process of building an industrial culture. This attitude may have been formed at Gerlach. If a noble spirit was the objective of Gerlach, then we can say Borsodi was a good student. He pursued what can only be described as a noble spirit for both himself and others.
Borsodi has often been called a libertarian. In this section’s title, I’ve put the word “libertarian” in quotes. Quote marks can be used to indicate words that need to be evaluated thoughtfully. Frankly, I’m not sure what definition of that term might fit Borsodi. It would have to be philosophical, not political. I’ve found little record of him taking a partisan position – mostly his intense critique of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration – a problem of centralization. Borsodi’s attitude was due in part to his disappointment with the Roosevelt administration’s mishandling of the homesteading program.
Borsodi was perhaps more correctly described as a “decentralist,” and indeed a leader of that movement. His critique of capitalism wasn’t the market but rather centralization of control of the economy and also of the government, of education and for that matter hierarchical and dogmatic religion. He was not anti-capitalist. He scorned the idea of socialism – essentially centralist to the core. He advocated the American style of individual liberty. In this sense he reflected the values of many of the Founding Fathers. He also advocated for family and community. He believed families and communities could take care of their own affairs without state interference, and without massive industry dominating the local economy.
Mildred Loomis, in her biography Ralph Borsodi: Reshaping Modern Culture, opened the second chapter with a quote from George Washington: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence – it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and fearful master, never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” In that quote, and one from Thoreau: “that government is best that governs least,” she captured the essence of Borsodi.
Borsodi was largely self-educated. In other words, he was “out of the box” of conventional conditioning. Borsodi’s education was the library – books to be more precise. Borsodi was always a voracious reader. He was a speed reader with a highly retentive memory. Borsodi surrounded himself with books and spent endless hours with them, reading some repeatedly. He haunted the great New York Public Library – a vast resource for scholars. It is clear that he was highly disciplined in his studies.
Borsodi was particularly fond of early American history. His copy of The Federalist Papers, Mildred has said, showed much reading. Jefferson appealed to Borsodi as the apostle of freedom and education. Jefferson insisted that a democracy must have a well-educated electorate and considered farm ownership the best qualification and exercise of citizenship. Ranking below the farmer Jefferson placed professionals and craftsmen who owned their own businesses. At the bottom of the list were traders, bankers and manufacturers “whose goal was neither integrity nor craftsmanship, but money.” This vision was a cornerstone of Borsodi’s philosophy and defined his career.
Borsodi read Thomas Paine closely. Paine, a very common man and a stunning writer, justified the sacrifices needed for the American Revolution for freedom and independence. His books defined the spirit of that struggle for independence, liberation from a remote, aristocratic and arbitrary tyranny. Paine’s Common Sense was a best seller during the American Revolution. Paine wrote the book not for the educated elite but for the common citizens of the colonies. Paine’s own formal education was elementary school level. He was self-educated, learned, and had a gift for writing. He addressed his work to people like himself which speaks to the Jeffersonian ideal of an informed citizenry. de Tocqueville, in the 1830s, described that American literacy in some detail. It did indeed define American democracy. That was important to Borsodi.
Among Mildred’s list of writers who she understood had deeply influenced Borsodi, was John Locke, who was an early influence on Jefferson. Borsodi adopted Locke’s themes of reason and freedom, the freedom of thought and expression. These were Enlightenment ideals. Locke was an empiricist. He believed what we know and who we become is a product of experience. He did not believe in metaphysics or that we are born with innate ideas. We are the product of Nature’s law. He was a rationalist, giving priority to thoughtful reasoning, facts and scientific validation. He believed in economic independence and in ownership of land – much as we find in Jefferson and Henry George and others influenced by Locke. Borsodi advocated such liberalism as a response to the urban-industrial revolution. (I recommend the Wikipedia article on “Classical Liberalism.”)
From Rousseau Borsodi took the motto: “Man is born free! But everywhere he is in chains.” We are by nature, said Rousseau, free and equal, and freedom from tyranny is a natural right. Rousseau was another Enlightenment leader.
Borsodi talked about two “vigorous Germans,” Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. These two philosophers, he acknowledged, represented the darker side of human nature but they were highly realistic and down to earth. They wrote about the effects of the European encounter with industrialism. Borsodi often quoted Nietzsche, particularly in This Ugly Civilization.
Nietzsche is a difficult subject for many. Many of his views are anti-liberal and anti-democratic, or so it would seem at first glance. His darker views are in fact an expression of a deep malaise in Europe during his life, a sense of an end of an age and a profound despair that went with it. I believe that Nietzsche’s writings were a response to his sense of the failure of both religion – “God is dead” - and the failure of reason. There is a sense of anguish in his work.
Nietzsche was inspired by Emerson. They both sought self-reliance. Both turned to nature for an understanding of the human essence. Both shrugged off the shackles of tradition, of conventional wisdom, and sought to define a new reality for a free, self-determining, individual. But Nietzsche came much later than Emerson. Emerson witnessed the birth of industrialism. Nietzsche, a generation later, saw it becoming a dominant force in Europe.
Borsodi had fundamental disagreements with Locke, Rousseau and the two Germans. He rejected their low opinion of the common man. But he did embrace their emphasis on the importance of disciplined will, sharp intellect and vigorous bodies. Mildred quoted Borsodi saying “Human beings develop through conscious effort for a balance of body, mind and will” – another hallmark of his philosophy and life-work. And it is here that Borsodi is a pioneer. He is an unrecognized innovator in the field of integral or systems thinking, of a holistic view of life. This system came to fruition in Borsodi’s seminal The Education of the Whole Man (1963). Within a decade “integral education” became a watchword of the human potential movement.
Turning to the influences of the East, Mildred learned that Confucius was Borsodi’s chief teacher. In Confucius Borsodi saw a mind trying to penetrate to the causes of social disorder. The path is to get to the root of things, said Confucius, and when this is done the right course opens. To get to the root we must earnestly investigate the world, human nature and the events unfolding around us. This principle, I believe, is the foundation of Borsodi’s social criticism.
Order and harmony, said Confucius, are achieved in a sequence that starts with the self, expands to the family, and as understanding grows, extends to the larger world. Mildred quoted an idea from Confucius that Borsodi paraphrased: “The true solution of all social, political and economic questions must begin (but not end) with the ‘cultivation of the personal life,’ and, ‘good habits, good institutions, and all other good things are the by-products of the right education of the individual.’” Here, Mildred footnoted, was the basis for the goal and structure of Borsodi’s later work in adult education – a work she was to take a leading role in promoting. In a sense, Confucius defines much of the structure of Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization and later Education and Living (1948)
Mildred noted the names of other writers who influenced Borsodi’s philosophy. They included: Emerson, Blake, Madison, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Copernicus, Comenius, Galileo, Newton, Pestalozzi, Oberlin, Froebel, Gruntvig, Thoreau, Sun Yat Sen and “scores of other favorites.” He seems to have had a deep affection for Gandhi. I don’t doubt that books by all of these writers and philosophers were in the now lost School of Living library. Borsodi assembled that library for the purpose of providing people with the basic knowledge they needed to define and solve their problems, to learn in order to lead the good life. Unfortunately, we have not yet discovered a complete list of those books.
The library of the School of Living was started with books from Borsodi’s personal library. Its headquarters, completed in 1936, had a library room with shelving for hundreds of books. While working there in 1939, Mildred read many of them and discussed them with Borsodi. She reported one extended conversation she had with him about the English arts and crafts leaders including Eric Gill, Hillaire Belloc, John Ruskin, William Morris and others. She said that Borsodi knew them well. He told her that his own system was “substantially but not entirely” like theirs; mostly due to his view that they only covered four of the universal problems. I believe a good understanding of the British and American arts and crafts movement is useful in understanding Borsodi. That movement was another protest against the dehumanizing influence of the industrial revolution, a return to a more natural, communal level of living, of good books, of crafts that are finely designed and wrought by hand. Of greater importance, was a self-determined life based on learning and reasoning.
Understanding Borsodi’s mentors is important because he did little to summarize his own philosophy. Mildred said it helped her understand Borsodi’s goals and his commitment to them, his concern for ethics and reason, and his vigorous schedule of work and action. I couldn’t agree more. In short, if you are interested in Borsodi’s work and wish to understand it more fully, you have a lot of reading and analyzing to do.
What would a good library contain? During the 1950s there were some 4,500 books at Borsodi’s University of Melbourne library. They included classics from around the world and contemporary literature. About that time a wave of new publications appeared about human potentiality. Adding selected new books, we are still only talking about a small library; likely fewer than ten thousand books. For more serious scholarship, there are large public and university libraries, but a core library is both necessary and sufficient for daily study.
Few of us want to read hundreds, let alone thousands, of books. Borsodi never intended that. He organized his library according to his universal problems structure to make them more accessible. Once we have a problem statement in mind, we check the jacket description, table of context and perhaps index, to see what is applicable. Today, digital indexing makes that much easier.
Nonetheless, we each need a solid background of understanding of the accumulated wisdom of humanity: history, literature, arts, sciences, and social sciences. Reading is a sublime art. Reading improves our minds and provides nourishment for our souls. It gives us access to the minds, the lives, the spirit of authors long dead. It brings something about them back to life. That experience shapes our own lives. Indeed, it’s not what is in the book as much as what happens in our minds as we read them that is important. And, I have to say, the book is one of the most highly perfected artifacts ever invented. A lot of effort went into making books what they are. A book is an object that provides pleasure in its own right for those who are appreciative. It took a lot of work to make digital tablets readable but it seems many people still prefer books since printed publication is currently gaining vis-à-vis digital dissemination.
Solving problems requires study, and study takes reading to another level. It requires discipline and method. Whether in our personal lives or work, we have problems to solve and if we don’t already know how to do that, we consult books or the internet for information. In short, we know we must learn. Really big problems require more extensive, perhaps exhausting study. Building a business, creating a new technology or application, solving an environmental issue – all require learning, thinking and analyzing, developing plans, and taking action – typically refining our solution as we proceed. Entrepreneurs and CEO’s are among the top readers.
A Note on Henry George
We have noted the influence of Henry George on Borsodi and his father, William. Ralph Borsodi was a leading authority on Georgist philosophy. Mildred devoted a thoughtful chapter to Borsodi’s involvement with it and found in it much of his motivation, commitment to principle and style of work. Borsodi, she wrote, left school in part to work for the Single Tax Party in New York City. I believe that was when he got his own apartment at age 15. Ralph had a passionate commitment to the Georgist philosophy. He made speeches from a soapbox at city street corners. He edited the newsletter, The Single Taxer. In 1919 he was Chair of the organization.
Borsodi also drew on leading Georgist Bolton Hall. Hall and Borsodi’s father were friends and Ralph apparently carried on this friendship with Hall for many years and considered Hall a mentor. Hall wrote several influential books on homesteading based on Georgist principles. William Borsodi collaborated with Hall on one of them. Hall gave Borsodi the idea of the three-acre, self-sufficient, family homestead.
The Stage Setting
To understand Ralph Borsodi, I think we need to understand the time and place in which he lived. That he was intensely engaged not only with books but with the life around him from youth is clear. The US and the world economies were growing at an incredible rate. Technology was exploding. The age of the skyscraper had arrived, and buildings suddenly sprung from 25 to 50 stories and kept going.
In 1910, when Borsodi reached his majority, New York City was second (barely) only to London in population at nearly 4.7 million. Much of the traffic was still horse drawn (there were electric trolleys and lighting). The automobile, with Ford going into mass production, was just beginning to take over personal transportation. In 1909 Taft had gone to his Presidential inauguration in a horse drawn buggy. In 1913 Wilson went to his in an automobile. There were electrical and telephone wires overhead. During World War I vast convoys of ships departed New York with food, men and material for the war. By 1925 New York was the largest city in the world with population over six million and climbing.
The rate of change was awesome; there was a dramatic change from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and Borsodi was at the heart of that drama. In 1893 Frederick Turner announced the end of the American frontier era, the era that marked the expansion of the country from the original colonies to the Pacific. Railroad tracks and telegraph lines crisscrossed the country. In 1892 Andrew Carnegie started his steel enterprise. In 1895 J.P. Morgan opened his financial company to fund industry. In 1896 John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Trust. The list is long. The industrial revolution was in full swing. America was becoming a dominate player in world markets and politics.
Technology was changing the countryside and society. Steam locomotives carried freight all over the country and steam ships carried vast cargos around the world. Sears and Montgomery Ward and other companies made a business of mail and freight delivery, much as Amazon and eBay do today. Canning and refrigeration changed the food system. The telegraph and telephone were the first “internet.” Electric elevators made skyscrapers possible. Then airplanes opened the air ocean. The automobile dramatically changed the way we lived. In the 1920s the radio came. Up to that time news, opinions, entertainment and public education came through print and public events and would continue to do so but the influence of radio steadily grew.
Populist and Progressive Reaction
The two ideologies that seem to have shaped Borsodi were the Populist and Progressive movements; and notably the former. Henry George was a cornerstone for these movements, particularly the Populists. As president, Theodore Roosevelt worked to shape a national policy along Populist and Progressive lines. Some of the major ideas that may have influenced Borsodi include:
In 1892 a third American political party, the People’s Party, or Populist, drew one million votes in the national Presidential elections. The Populist represented the Midwest and agrarianism, another generation of embattled farmers. The tyrant this time wasn’t King George but the new aristocracy of American business and industry. There was also strong Populist sympathy in the South where a second branch of the People’s Party formed.
Agrarian culture was being ravaged. Farmers once represented a family tenancy and the keystone of the American economic enterprise. The strong new, industrial national economic system worked to the disadvantage of farmers. Farm production costs were largely fixed, and the market was highly variable. Forced into debt, farmers were driven into poverty and off their land. Frederick Turner, in his closing of the American frontier thesis, among others, presented Populism as a reaction against the consequences of economic power and the resultant social stratification. They drew on the egalitarian sentiments of Jeffersonian democracy and the traditional roots of those embattled farmers at Concord for their ideas; they sought a return to earlier virtues.
Many of the Midwesterners were Grangers, farmers who had formed co-operatives to pool their buying power to get wholesale rates and even established factories for making plows and harvesters which were sold to members at cost. They operated their own grain elevators, packing plants, insurance companies and banks. Being pushed into commercial agriculture by national economic trends, the farms had become dependent upon the railroads to get their crops to markets, on banks for frequent loans needed to maintain and develop their farms, and upon a market over which they had no control. The Grangers got several of their states to take over operation of the railroads. To support them, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Anti-trust Law (1890).
The year 1893 was one of national economic panic. Over 600 banks and more than 150 railroads failed. The gold reserve dropped dangerously. Agricultural prices plummeted below the cost of production and a huge number of farms went into receivership.
The causes of the economic panic of 1893 included ten years of drought, land speculation and rising cost of farming. Half or more of Kansas farmers lost their property. The major parties were doing little for them. Popular leaders appeared who called on the farmers to “raise less corn and more Hell!” Conventions were formed in both the Midwest and the South and in 1892 they nominated General James B. Weaver of Iowa, a lawyer and former Republican maverick Congressman, as the candidate for President of the US. He drew those 1,000,000 popular votes in 1892.
As the Populist movement gained momentum it advocated the ideas of social critics and visionaries like Henry George, Edward Bellamy and Henry D. Lloyd. The Populist platform opposed monopoly and special privilege and advocated that wealth should belong to those who produced it. They demanded financial reform and sought the coinage of silver money. They wanted to strip the railroads of all land other than that needed for the railbeds, have government take ownership of railroads, telegraph and telephone lines; an eight-hour day, direct election of senators (senators were then elected by the state legislation), and an end to land monopolization. The farmers were joined by miners, workers and other groups who saw free silver as the cure of their economic bondage.
In 1896 the Populist Party chose William Jennings Bryan, a charismatic orator, as their candidate for President. The Republicans fielded William McKinley. McKinley won 7,107,000 popular votes to Bryan’s 6,533,000 and 271 to 176 electoral votes. The Populist Party collapsed following the election but some of its ideas prevailed, such as the direct election of US senators. That required an amendment to the US Constitution.
Populism came at the end of a period some historians have called the American Era of Unrest, from 1865 to 1900. The furious pace of change during that period following the Civil War cannot be over emphasized. Industrialization had morphed from a curiosity to become the dominate national economic system. Monopolistic capitalism was a new and very real force in the shaping of American society. Government had not yet found its response to these changes. It was mostly pro-business, or at least “hands off.” The Horatio Alger myth was born – a secularization of the protestant work ethic that said hard work, thrift and a stroke of luck could bring wealth and ease. Social Darwinism was a popular dogma. Manifest Destiny was the grand nationalistic credo. America was becoming the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, and waves of immigrants were pouring into the country seeking freedom and opportunities.
Henry George (1839 – 1897) was born in Philadelphia to a family of modest means. At age 15 he went to sea and three years latter landed in San Francisco. He did a little, not very rewarding prospecting in the gold fields. He married and took a job as a typesetter and printer for a San Francisco newspaper. He also contributed articles and gradually developed a reputation in journalism. He and his family nonetheless lived in straightened circumstances for some years. It was as a journalist that he developed his economic criticism.
Visiting New York City, he was deeply moved by the abject squalor of immigrant slums. There was poverty in California but nothing like that of the city slums. In California people still had some, albeit increasingly limited, access to land. In the great cities they had none. In 1879 he published his Progress and Poverty, a book that sold 3 million copies (and is still in print and much studied). He argued that the cause of poverty was that land being held by speculators was inaccessible to people who could make a living on it.
George, although he never finished school, became the first America to create a major economic theory. He developed an idea that was called the Single Tax, a tax on the undeveloped value of the land (not of the improvements on the land, including manufactured products which are heavily taxed today, but the land itself). He believed the Single Tax would remove land from speculation and make it available to realize the American credo of opportunity for all. He drew on the works of economic pioneers like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, both of whom it has been suggested, would have likely supported George’s theory. Today George’s Single Tax is still advocated by economists such as Milton Freedman and Paul Krugman.
Progress and Poverty took George ten years to write. He couldn’t find a publisher, so he set the type himself. It took him four months working in his own spare time. The plates were sent to New York City, where the book was printed and immediately sold out.
The question George started with was: Why, in spite of increase in production power, do workers’ wages tend to remain a minimum which will give but a bare living? The answer is that economic theory holds that wages are paid out of capital. This is utterly false, he asserted. Wages are, in fact a product of labor. The higher the productivity, the greater labor’s contribution to capitol and hence wages should be higher, not lower.
Wealth is a function of land, labor and capital. Land is not only the surface of the Earth but includes the whole material universe outside of us. Land, not capital – as commonly held in his day and ours – is the source of wealth. The key term, however, is labor. Capital is the product of land plus labor. In fact, labor is the source of all wealth for it is only through labor that land can be made productive. Without labor there is no value created. Capital is not the start of the process but rather the end result. Capital may, and should be, used to aid production and capital is increased by a just and equitable return of interest.
By wealth George meant the value gained through employment of land. The connection has more than economic importance. George wrote: “for it is only by having access to land, from which his very body is drawn, that men can come into contact with or use nature.”
For George, land was the foundation of a just and equitable society. Land, he maintained, is a natural endowment. It is a common heritage. Land held in speculation makes it too costly for common use. Industrialization changed our relationship to the land. For untold generations farms were the source of livelihood. Once 85% of employment in the US, today less than one percent of our workforce claims farming as an occupation and only two percent of the population live on farms. Cities were founded in agricultural regions, places where there was prime farmland. Development has now covered vast stretches of this land; eliminating farms and orchards by the thousands. That process continues. As a result of the shift from self-subsistence farming to city jobs, industrial nations produced appalling poverty.
George became the third most popular personality in the country and had a large following elsewhere. In 1887 he ran for mayor of New York City. He lost, as would be expected, to the candidate of the Tammany Hall political machine but polled ahead of the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt. George ran again in 1897, against his doctor’s advice, as he was in poor health, but died on the eve of the election, virtually certain to have won had he lived.
Borsodi elaborated on and expanded a number of George’s key ideas. For example, his innovative response to land became not political reform but the privately held land trust.
The reelection of President McKinley in 1900 heralded a continuation of the Republican program to support the growth of business and industry. Following the Panic of 1893, better times returned to the farmers and to labor. As the new century dawned there was a sense of contentment in the country. Then McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt became President.
Roosevelt was already a legend. He was a renowned naturalist and outdoorsman, a well-known face in politics, a dynamic and eccentric figure who could quote at length from literature and whistled the songs of numerous birds. Only three years earlier he became a national hero when he led his Rough Riders, troops he raised in the American West, up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Roosevelt was a man of the times. Despite his patrician heritage, his robust health, horsemanship and love of wilderness travel and hunting endeared him to folks who lived on the land. But he was also an accomplished city machine politician.
Although Republican at the time, Roosevelt was not a friend of capital and industry. He sought to moderate big business influence. While he had a sizable following in agrarian America, the Populist, his greatest appeal was the rising middle class, mostly urban – the Progressives. Both farmers and the middle class felt the repression of predatory capitalism. Under his charismatic leadership and the wave of popular sentiment, Roosevelt was able to forge an alliance of town and farm that would have far greater success than the Populist upheaval.
The Progressives believed in democratic capitalism and a strong central government. They wanted progress to work. But they saw their chance to improve their own lot seriously restricted by the unconstrained power of monopolistic business, particularly by the men of great fortune who had local machine politicians and US Congressmen on their payroll.
The Progressives sought reform. They were advocates of government intervention as a check on predatory capitalism. The press and the intelligentsia rallied to the Progressive cause. Progressivism was less politically confrontational than the Populist Revolt. It thus attracted people with moderate leanings and these shaped much of the response to come. Progressive leadership came from both parties.
The print media was then a major driver of public opinion. There were many popular books on social criticism. American rural sociology was becoming a strong academic voice. The works of European sociologists also became influential, particularly Durkheim, Weber and Simmel. In education and philosophy, the voices of William James and John Dewey were popular. People were looking for ideas.
Newspapers and magazines brought a steady stream of not only news but also opinion. A new radical journalism, which Roosevelt labeled “muckraking,” became extremely popular in both newspapers and magazines. It exposed political corruption in the cities. It attacked the “robber barons,” monopolists such as John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.
Roosevelt led a new charge, up Capitol Hill, to bust the Trusts--the power of the great monopolistic corporations. The time was right. It was the era of urban reform, characterized by Jane Addams, who won the Noble Peace Prize for her work both as a peace advocate and the founder of settlement houses. The Supreme Court, however, a legacy of more conservative administrations, was not a friend of reform. Progressive forces countered with landmark constitutional amendments including the sixteenth, which legalized an income tax, the seventeenth which achieved the Populist goal of popular election of US Senators, the eighteenth, which established prohibition, and the nineteenth, which granted the vote to women.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Commission on Country Life.
Roosevelt took a deep interest in traditional American values. In 1908 he formed a Commission to study the life of the American farmer, family and community. The Report of the Commission on Country Life was first published in 1911.
Why Roosevelt formed this Commission is of interest. At the time farming was in the so-called “Golden Age of Agriculture,” but it was a troubled paradise. Farming was profitable but not as rewarding as work in the cities. The country was in a flux of industrial and urban development and a comfortable middle class was rapidly growing.
Dissatisfaction with the lack of amenities in the country had become epidemic. Rural residents flocked to the cities seeking better jobs and lifestyles and this alarmed those who saw rural America as not only the economic and social foundation of a republican way of life but its moral cornerstone. Agrarian values were a foil against the morality of predatory capitalism, big business and the business-oriented Republican Party. At root was the issue of redressing economic inequities by revitalizing the Federal role in regulating companies, conserving natural resources and leveling the political playing field between rural and urban populations.
Roosevelt prefaced the purpose of the Commission in these words: “No nation has ever achieved permanent greatness unless this greatness was based on the well-being of the great farmer class, the men who live on the soil. … There is but one person whose welfare is as vital to the welfare of the whole country as is that of the wage-worker who does manual labor, and that is the tiller of the soil – the farmer.”
The Commission held thirty public hearings all over the country, circulated over half a million questionnaires, and held numerous other meetings. The findings of the report included:
· Rural people are socially isolated
· Roads are bad
· Communication poor
· Farm credit needed
· Farm cooperatives needed
· Extension support needed
· Rural schools deplorable
The Commission made three recommendations:
1. Nationalize the agricultural extension service, which was done by the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914
2. Foster the development of agricultural economics and rural sociology in universities, which would provide ongoing surveys to gather information on rural life
3. An ongoing campaign for rural progress.
In short, the Report called for rebuilding a traditional agricultural civilization in America.
How do you make country life attractive? First, of course, farming must be rewarding work and profitable. The farmer should live comfortably and securely. Second, the local economy should be reinforced by small manufactories to provide the needs of the farm community. But the real issue was the relative social isolation of the farmer. This was still the era of horses and buggies, and farms were wide apart. Farmers are also, by definition, self-reliant. They do not readily form the cooperatives needed to enhance social life. In comparison to urban life, these conditions result in a certain “social sterility.” True, where the Grange was strong these social needs were better supplied. What else, the Commission asked, could be done to make rural life more attractive?
Schools and churches were at the top of the list of beneficial social agencies. Libraries with meeting rooms were recommended. More extension courses were suggested as a way to bring farmers together. Better roads were needed to help the farmer get crops to market and also provide access to towns, to retail outlets and to community activities. Rural free delivery of mail, telephones and better access to printed media where also high on the list.
Rural schools were found to be in poor condition and poorly supported compared to town and city schools. They lacked courses on good farming practices and cultural development.
Country life was seen as a moral foundation, and the most important source of moral development and guidance was the church. Churches were a fundamental institution in country life but there were few resident ministers and fewer who were knowledgeable about rural affairs or effective as leaders in community development.
Leadership, places to meet, training and resources were objectives that could be supplied by governments, both local and Federal. An appeal was made for men and women to live in the country, young people “of quality, energy, capacity, aspiration and conviction, who will live in the open country as permanent residents on farms, or as teachers, or in other useful fields, and who, while developing their own business or affairs to the greatest perfection, will still have unselfish interest in the welfare of their communities. It will be well for us as a people if we recognize the opportunity for usefulness in the open country and consider that there is a call for service.” Their job would be to arouse people to a greater awareness of their social needs and potentials and, most importantly, to keep young people on the farm rather than going to the city.
Roosevelt championed the medium-scale farmers, the “dirt farmer.” He said of the farmer-owner: “This type of life is passed in healthy surroundings which tends to develop the qualities of citizenship and allows a closer touch between people, to ‘feel more vividly the underlying sense of brotherhood of community of interest.’” He added, “The man who tills his own farm, who grows what we eat and the raw material, more than any other element of the population stands for the traditional American ideals and provides an essential bulwark against dangerous social and political innovations. Farmers and the small merchant, clerks and mechanics who serve rural communities, retain, because of the surroundings and the nature of his work, a high degree the qualities which we like to think of as distinctly American.” Roosevelt saw these qualities as the virtues of the “Embattled Farmers of ’76.” He sought to provide both a public philosophy and moderate Federal support for rural revitalization. He also sought private and volunteer support for the Commission’s recommendations.
The 150-page report, first published in 1911, was reissued in 1917 and again in 1944. It is a compelling study of rural America and a thoughtful plan for development.
Rural community development was a Progressive ideal. It fostered democratic equality between town and farm. The movement also laid the groundwork for rural sustainability with goals such as healthy local environment, strong social relationships and viable local economies. These values have become increasingly important now, a century later. It has stimulated expansion of applied research into rural sociology, community development and agricultural economics.
I think it fair to say that Borsodi was probably a keen supporter of the Country Life ideal. His back-to-the-land program echoed its key values. However, he went further. His vision was to dismantle much of industry and the cities and to move people back to self-sufficiency on the land. It was also more focused on local self-reliance than government intervention. To this extent, I think his approach was clearly more Populist than Progressive.
We will revisit the Country Life Movement.
The Great War
Where would this movement have gone if Roosevelt had served another term as President? When he ran for office in 1904, he said he would retire at the end of that term. In 1909 he left the Presidency to William Howard Taft and went on a fabled year-long safari to Africa. Returning home, he became disturbed with Taft’s conservative leanings and decided to run for another term as President. Losing the Republican nomination to Taft he exercised his prerogatives as a leader of the Progressive movement and ran on the Progressive party ticket in 1913. The new party became the “Bull Moose” party after Roosevelt declared that he was "as strong as a bull moose." While there were Progressives in both parties, Roosevelt could not rally enough support to win although he did out-poll Taft. The split in the Republican ticket threw the election to Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, with only 42% of the popular vote but with the electoral votes of 40 states.
Wilson inherited a healthy economy and two factions in Congress: The Agrarians, led by Bryan, and the pro-business wing. With a large Democratic majority, Wilson undertook trust busting, exempted labor and agriculture from anti-trust law, allowed collective bargaining; barred interstate shipment of goods manufactured with child labor; reduced the tariff rate, and legislated other banking and currency reform including creating the Federal Reserve system.
It should be made clear that Wilson took centralization of government to a new level. The Progressives had set the tone for government activism. The social sciences and social philosophies emerging at the time envisioned better, scientifically managed, societies. There were movements in social and educational reform. Even the Country Life Movement had called for increasing government intervention. This represented an important shift in the underlying philosophy of American government and would shape the political environment to this day. Borsodi was one of a small minority who fought this trend.
In 1914 war broke out in Europe. Wilson had run on a platform of neutrality and worked steadily to get the belligerents to the peace table with no success. Gradually the tide of neutrality shifted. Unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking merchant and passenger vessels indiscriminately, brought pressure to bear. Germany was using submarines to strangle the European Allies and nearly succeeded. Wilson resisted entering the war even after a German U-boat sank the Lusitania with the loss of 120 American lives. But the discovery of a plan by the Germans to make Mexico an ally, with a promise to help Mexico recover land in the American Southwest, mobilized anti-German sentiment leading to a US declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.
The global war economy had a profound impact on the structure of US society, the economy and on agriculture. World War I was a turning point for the US and the world. It marked the end of a chapter of history and the start of a series of events that would define the twentieth century.
Wilson clearly wanted a more collectivized country and the war gave him leverage. The government became increasingly centralized. It mobilized industry and expanded agricultural acreage. The economy was virtually nationalized during the war. Wilson set up a propaganda machine, and popular patriotic groups terrorized dissidents and those who showed a lack of enthusiasm.
The US became an awesome presence on the world stage. Some 4.7 million American men and women served the country during the war, with 2.8 million going overseas. The US Navy decimated the U-boats. Indeed, of the millions of troops shipped across the sea, none was lost to torpedoes. The influx of fresh troops and masses of new arms turned the tide of the war. There was a cost, of course; 116,516 Americans died in the war, more than half from non-combat conditions such as disease and accident, and 205,000 were wounded. In contrast, in one battle, at The Somme in 1916, the French lost 200,000, the British 400,000 and the Germans 500,000. It was a war of machine guns and lethal gases, of massive artillery barrages, tanks, aerial warfare and submarines.
On the balance, the war was good for the American economy: Over $3 billion in trade and $2 billion in credit to Europe. During World War I technological change accelerated and with it came new industries. There was a continued flight from the farm to the city.
Perhaps the most important impact of the war was psychological. The war was a human tragedy, a bloody horror. It was an industrial driven, mechanized, slaughter. In all more than 40 million died. It echoed the dark tones of Darwin and Freud, of Nietzsche and Marx. It was a shock to the humanitarian sentiment; some say a loss of hope in the human future. Borsodi didn’t say much about it but he became, if not a pacifist, an advocate of peace. His primary concern, as noted, was the effect of massive centralization of government and business on the American character.
As horrible as the war, the Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the world from 1918 through 1920, killed from 30 to 50 million to perhaps twice that number. In 1920 and 1921 the global economy went into recession, and prices soared in New York City.
The Borsodis decided to take flight from the city and seek greater security in the countryside.