This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Muckraking the Fathers
This appeared as an unsigned editorial in the January 21, 1915 Issue
Radical thought some time ago came into possession of a new pocket-knife. It is called “the economic interpretation of history,” and the havoc it has wrought among fine old parlor furniture is a caution. There is a document known as the United States Constitution which people were in the habit of referring to with extreme deference. We know to-day that the Constitution is a scheme devised by a land-holding and rum-selling oligarchy for the enslavement of a democracy. There was a group of people and an epoch commonly described as the Fathers. We know to-day that they were not parents to be proud of. There was a war known as the War of Independence, reputed to have been fought by patriots. We know to-day that it was a war fought for privilege by tax-dodgers. George Washington, a land-speculator; Hancock, a smuggler; Robert Morris, a bond-scalper—it has been a busy little pocket-knife.
But the parallel with the small boy is not perfect. The small boy chips and slashes without animus, whereas radical thought and radical youth hack away at the past in a frenzy. Once upon a time the radical thinker was not much concerned with the Past; it was dead and did not matter. But in fighting the battles of the present the Radical discovers that the past does matter; it is not dead; its heavy hand lies on us and the roots of our thoughts and actions run back through the centuries. The Fathers in their graves stand in the way of a great many desirable things of the present. Therefore they must be shown up. The movement once under way, impetus does the rest. There ensues a chronic state of irritation with the past, a chronic suspicion that the past was just the opposite of what patriotic sentiment has usually pictured.
It is all the more curious that the present-day revolutionist should be so merciless to the past when one considers how fatally the same interpretation can be applied to his own case. If the American Revolution was fought for land-grabbing and crooked finance, if the Protestant Revolution was merely an expropriation of the Church, if the French Revolution was an assault on ecclesiastical revenues, what will prevent the historian of the year 2050 from describing the social uplift movement of 1915 as primarily engineered by young men and young women of the middle classes in search of jobs as investigators and research directors, and the Socialist party as made up of lazy factory hands, grafting walking delegates, and ambitious lawyers?