June 7, 2009
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Harry H. Moore’s The Youth and the Nation (1917) is a reformist tract which attempts to “enlist” young men in the fight against social problems such as disease, “feeble-mindedness,” juvenile delinquency and crime, “the evils of immigration” (which include “the utter failure… to Americanize [the] foreign-born population”), “commercialized prostitution,” “liquor and the saloon,” “the disasters of industry,” “child labor,” “women in industry,” unemployment, “rural poverty,” “poverty in the city,” “the luxury and extravagance of the rich,” and “the inequitable distribution of wealth.” All of those issues number among the most pressing concerns of Reformers in their quest to rationalize and improve social life in the United States through a combination of the principle of efficiency, which had already transformed the economy, and a middle class sense of morality deeply influenced by Christian theology.
In today’s sclerotic political environment it seems likely that Moore would be castigated as a “socialist” by post-conservative pundits. In his own day, Moore’s views were shared by many people who had witnessed first hand the devastating consequences of laissez-faire capitalism. Recall that at the turn into the 20th century the bloated corpse of a horse lying by the street, children with fingers or limbs amputated by industrial accidents begging for food, or impoverished old men and women scavenging for scraps to sell to the rag and bone shop were common sights in the larger cities. Civilization itself seemed to be in decline. The massive uptick in productivity characteristic of the Machine Age, and the rise of the United States as an industrial power in general, brought with them scenes of abnegation that shocked European visitors such as Charles Dickens and Knut Hamsun.
Here was a sort of industrialized barbarism, one in which the bottom tenth of society– what was at the time called “the residuum”– was left to vegetate in the tenements, to scrape by as best they could. Such immiseration– or proletarianization, to use a marxist term– was held to be the fault of its victims. Defective character, the champions of this most exploitative form of capitalism argued, or perhaps the hereditary consequences of deviancy transmitted across generations via “gemmules” seeding the blood, were responsible for social ills. It was against such claims, and with a solid conviction that they system could be redeemed, that people such as Harry Moore, Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams and many others called for reform.