The Future in America

by H.G. Wells


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XV - At Washington


A picture for the book The Future in America

I

Washington as Anti-climax

I came to Washington full of expectations and curiosities. Here, I felt, so far as it could exist visibly and palpably anywhere, was the head and mind of this colossal America over which my observant curiosities had wandered. In this place I should find, among other things, perhaps as many as ten thousand men who would not be concerned in trade. There would be all the Senators and representatives, their secretaries and officials, and four thousand and more scientific and literary men of Washington's institutions and libraries, the diplomatic corps, the educational centres, the civil service, the writers and thinking men who must inevitably be drawn to this predestined centre. I promised myself arduous intercourse with a teeming intellectual life. Here I should find questions answered, discover missing clues, get hold of the last connections in my inquiry. I should complete at Washington my vision of America; my forecast would follow.

I don't precisely remember how this vision departed. I know only that after a day or so in Washington an entirely different conception was established, a conception of Washington as architecture and avenues, as a place of picture post-cards and excursions, with sightseers instead of thoughts going to and fro. I had imagined that in Washington I should find such mentally vigorous discussion-centres as the New York X Club on a quite magnificent scale. Instead, I found the chief scientific gathering-place has, like so many messes in the British army before the Boer war, a rule against talking "shop." In all Washington there is no clearing-house of thought at all; Washington has no literary journals, no magazines, no publications other than those of the official specialist—there does not seem to be a living for a single firm of publishers in this magnificent empty city.

I went about the place in a state of ridiculous and deepening concern. I went through the splendid Botanical Gardens, through the spacious and beautiful Capitol, and so to the magnificently equipped Library of Congress. There in an upper chamber that commands an altogether beautiful view of long vistas of avenue and garden to that stupendous unmeaning obelisk (the work of the women of America) that dominates all Washington, I found at last a little group of men who could talk. It was like a small raft upon a limitless empty sea. I lunched with them at their Round Table, and afterwards Mr.[Pg 238] Putnam showed me the Rotunda, quite the most gracious reading-room dome the world possesses, and explained the wonderful mechanical organization that brings almost every volume in that immense collection within a minute of one's hand. "With all this," I asked him, "why doesn't the place think?" He seemed, discreetly, to consider it did.

It was in the vein of Washington's detached deadness that I should find Professor Langley (whose flying experiments I have followed for some years with close interest) was dead, and I went through the long galleries of archæological specimens and stuffed animals in the Smithsonian Institution to inflict my questions upon his temporary successor, Dr. Cyrus Adler. He had no adequate excuses. He found a kind of explanation in the want of enterprise of American publishers, so that none of them come to Washington to tap its latent resources of knowledge and intellectual capacity; but that does not account for the absence of any traffic in ideas. It is perhaps near the truth to say that this dearth of any general and comprehensive intellectual activity is due to intellectual specialization. The four thousand scientific men in Washington are all too energetically busy with ethnographic details, electrical computations, or herbaria to talk about common and universal things. They ought not to be so busy, and a science so specialized sinks half-way down the scale of sciences. Science is one of those things that cannot hustle; if it does, it loses its con[Pg 239]nections. In Washington some men, I gathered, hustle, others play bridge, and general questions are left, a little contemptuously, as being of the nature of "gas," to the newspapers and magazines. Philosophy, which correlates the sciences and keeps them subservient to the universals of life, has no seat there. My anticipated synthesis of ten thousand minds refused, under examination, to synthesize at all; it remained disintegrated, a mob, individually active and collectively futile, of specialists and politicians.

II

The City of Conversation

But that is only one side of Washington life, the side east and south of the White House. Northwestward I found, I confess, the most agreeable social atmosphere in America. It is a region of large fine houses, of dignified and ample-minded people, people not given over to "smartness" nor redolent of dollars, unhurried and reflective, not altogether lost to the wider aspects of life. In Washington I met again that peculiarly aristocratic quality I had found in Harvard—in the person of President Eliot, for example—an aristocratic quality that is all the finer for the absence of rank, that has integral in it—books, thought, and responsibility. And yet I could have wished these fine people more alive to[Pg 240] present and future things, a little less established upon completed and mellowing foundations, a little less final in their admirable finish....

There was, I found, a little breeze of satisfaction fluttering the Washington atmosphere in this region. Mr. Henry James came through the States last year distributing epithets among their cities with the justest aptitude. Washington was the "City of Conversation"; and she was pleasantly conscious that she merited this friendly coronation.

Washington, indeed, converses well, without awkwardness, without chatterings, kindly, watchful, agreeably witty. She lulled and tamed my purpose to ask about primary things, to discuss large questions. Only once, and that was in an after-dinner duologue, did I get at all into a question in Washington. For the rest, Washington remarked and alluded and made her point and got away.

III

Mount Vernon

And Washington, with a remarkable unanimity and in the most charming manner, assured me that if I came to see and understand America I must on no account miss Mount Vernon. To have passed indifferently by Concord was bad enough, I was told, but to ignore the home of the first president, to turn my back upon that ripe monument of colonial simplicity, would be[Pg 241] quite criminal neglect. To me it was a revelation how sincerely insistent they were upon this. It reminded me of an effect I had already appreciated very keenly in Boston—and even before Boston, when Mr. Z took me across Spuyten Duyvil into the country of Sleepy Hollow, and spoke of Cornwallis as though he had died yesterday—and that is the longer historical perspectives of America. America is an older country than any European one, for she has not rejuvenesced for a hundred and thirty years. In endless ways America fails to be contemporary. In many respects, no doubt, she is decades in front of Europe, in mechanism, for example, and productive organization, but in very many other and more fundamental ones she is decades behind. Go but a little way back and you will find the European's perspectives close up; they close at '71, at '48, down a vista of reform bills, at Waterloo and the treaty of Paris, at the Irish Union, at the coming of Victor Emanuel; Great Britain, for example, in the last hundred years has reconstructed politically and socially, created half her present peerage, evolved the Empire of India, developed Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, fought fifty considerable wars. Mount Vernon, on the other hand, goes back with unbroken continuity, a broad band of mellow tradition, to the War of Independence.

Well, I got all that in conversation at Washington, and so I didn't need to go to Mount Vernon, after all. I got all that about 1777, and I failed altogether to[Pg 242] get anything of any value whatever about 1977—which is the year of greater interest to me. About the direction and destinies of that great American process that echoes so remotely through Washington's cool gracefulness of architecture and her umbrageous parks, this cultivated society seemed to me to be terribly incurious and indifferent. It was alive to political personalities, no doubt, its sons and husbands were Senators, judges, ambassadors, and the like; it was concerned with their speeches and prospects, but as to the trend of the whole thing Washington does not picture it, does not want to picture it. I found myself presently excusing myself for Mount Vernon on the ground that I was not a retrospective American, but a go-ahead Englishman, and so apologizing for my want of reverence for venerable things. "We are a young people," I maintained. "We are a new generation."

IV

In the Senate-House

I went to see the Senate debating the railway-rate bill, and from the Senatorial gallery I had pointed out to me Tillman and Platt, Foraker and Lodge, and all the varied personalities of the assembly. The chamber is a circular one, with enormously capacious galleries. The members speak from their desks, other members write letters, read (and rustle) newspapers, sit[Pg 243] among accumulations of torn paper, or stand round the apartment in audibly conversational groups. A number of messenger-boys—they wear no uniform—share the floor of the House with the representatives, and are called by clapping the hands. They go to and fro, or sit at the feet of the Vice-President. Behind and above the Vice-President the newspaper men sit in a state of partial attention, occasionally making notes for the vivid descriptions that have long since superseded verbatim reports in America. The public galleries contain hundreds of intermittently talkative spectators. For the most part these did not seem to me to represent, as the little strangers' gallery in the House of Commons represents, interests affected. They were rather spectators seeing Washington, taking the Senate en route for the obelisk top and Mount Vernon. They made little attempt to hear the speeches.

In a large distinguished emptiness among these galleries is the space devoted to diplomatic representatives, and there I saw, sitting in a meritorious solitude, the British charge d'affaires and his wife following the debate below. I found it altogether too submerged for me to follow. The countless spectators, the Senators, the boy messengers, the comings and goings kept up a perpetual confusing babblement. One saw men walking carelessly between the Speaker and the Vice-President, and at one time two gentlemen with their backs to the member in possession of the House engaged the Vice-President[Pg 244] in an earnest conversation. The messengers circulated at a brisk trot, or sat on the edge of the dais exchanging subdued badinage. I have never seen a more distracted Legislature.

The whole effect of Washington is a want of concentration, of something unprehensile and apart. It is on, not in, the American process. The place seems to me to reflect, even in its sounds and physical forms, that dispersal of power, that evasion of a simple conclusiveness, which is the peculiar effect of that ancient compromise, the American Constitution. The framers of that treaty were haunted by two terrible bogies, a military dictatorship and what they called "mob rule," they were obsessed by the need of safeguards against these dangers, they were controlled by the mutual distrust of constituent States far more alien to one another than they are now, and they failed to foresee both the enormous assimilation of interests and character presently to be wrought by the railways and telegraphs, and the huge possibilities of corruption, elaborate electrical arrangements offer to clever unscrupulous men. And here in Washington is the result, a Legislature that fails to legislate, a government that cannot govern, a pseudo-responsible administration that offers enormous scope for corruption, and that is perhaps invincibly intrenched behind the two-party system from any insurgence of the popular will. The plain fact of the case is that Congress, as it is constituted at present, is the feeblest, least accessible, and most[Pg 245] inefficient central government of any civilized nation in the worst west of Russia. Congress is entirely inadequate to the tasks of the present time.

I came away from Washington with my pre-conception enormously reinforced that the supreme need of America, the preliminary thing to any social or economic reconstruction, is political reform. It seems to me to lie upon the surface that America has to be democratized. It is necessary to make the Senate and the House of Representatives more interdependent, and to abolish the possibilities of deadlocks between them, to make election to the Senate direct from the people, and to qualify and weaken the power of the two-party system by the introduction of "second ballots" and the referendum....

But how such drastic changes are to be achieved constitutionally in America I cannot imagine. Only a great educated, trained, and sustained agitation can bring about so fundamental a political revolution, and at present I can find nowhere even the beginnings of a realization of this need.

V

President Roosevelt

In the White House, set midway between the Washington of the sightseers and the Washington of brilliant conversation, I met President Roosevelt. I was[Pg 246] mightily pleased by the White House; it is dignified and simple—once again am I tempted to use the phrase "aristocratic in the best sense" of things American; and an entire absence of uniforms or liveries creates an atmosphere of Republican equality that is reinforced by "Mr. President's" friendly grasp of one's undistinguishable hand. And after lunch I walked about the grounds with him, and so achieved my ambition to get him "placed," as it were, in my vision of America.

In the rare chances I have had of meeting statesmen, there has always been one common effect, an effect of their being smaller, less audible, and less saliently featured than one had expected. A common man builds up his picture of the men prominent in the great game of life very largely out of caricature, out of head-lines, out of posed and "characteristic" portraits. One associates them with actresses and actors, literary poseurs and such-like public performers, anticipates the same vivid self-consciousness as these display in common intercourse, keys one's self up for the paint on their faces, and for voices and manners altogether too accentuated for the gray-toned lives of common men. I've met politicians who remained at that. But so soon as Mr. Roosevelt entered the room, "Teddy," the Teddy of the slouch hat, the glasses, the teeth, and the sword, that strenuous vehement Teddy (who had, let me admit, survived a full course of reading in the President's earlier writings) vanished, and[Pg 247] gave place to an entirely negotiable individuality. To-day, at any rate, the "Teddy" legend is untrue. Perhaps it wasn't always quite untrue. There was a time during the world predominance of Mr. Kipling, when I think the caricature must have come close to certain of Mr. Roosevelt's acceptances and attitudes. But that was ten years and more ago, and Mr. Roosevelt to this day goes on thinking and changing and growing....

For me, anyhow, that strenuousness has vanished beyond recalling, and there has emerged a figure in gray of a quite reasonable size, with a face far more thoughtful and perplexed than strenuous, with a clinched hand that does indeed gesticulate, though it is by no means a gigantic fist—and with quick movements, a voice strained indeed, a little forced for oratory, but not raised or aggressive in any fashion, and friendly screwed-up eyes behind the glasses.

It isn't my purpose at all to report a conversation that went from point to point. I wasn't interviewing the President, and I made no note at the time of the things said. My impression was of a mind—for the situation—quite extraordinarily open. That is the value of President Roosevelt for me, and why I can't for the life of my book leave him out. He is the seeking mind of America displayed. The ordinary politician goes through his career like a charging bull, with his eyes shut to any changes in the premises. He locks up his mind like a powder magazine. But any spark may fire the mind of[Pg 248] President Roosevelt. His range of reading is amazing; he seems to be echoing with all the thought of the time, he has receptivity to the pitch of genius. And he does not merely receive, he digests and reconstructs; he thinks. It is his political misfortune that at times he thinks aloud. His mind is active with projects of solution for the teeming problems around him. Traditions have no hold upon him—nor, his enemies say, have any but quite formal pledges. It is hard to tie him. In all these things he is to a single completeness, to mind and will of contemporary America. And by an unparalleled conspiracy of political accidents, as all the world knows, he has got to the White House. He is not a part of the regular American political system at all—he has, it happens, stuck through.

Now my picture of America is, as I have tried to make clear, one of a gigantic process of growth, of economic coming and going, spaced out over vast distances and involving millions of hastening men; I see America as towns and urgency and greatnesses beyond, I suppose, any precedent that has ever been in the world. And like a little island of order amid that ocean of enormous opportunity and business turmoil and striving individualities, is this District of Columbia, with Washington and its Capitol and obelisk. It is a mere pin-point in the unlimited, on which, in peace times, the national government lies marooned, twisted up into knots, bound with safeguards, and altogether impotently stranded. And[Pg 249] peering closely, and looking from the Capitol down the vista of Pennsylvania Avenue, I see the White House, minute and clear, with a fountain playing before it, and behind it a railed garden set with fine trees. The trees are not so thick, nor the railings so high but that the people on the big "seeing Washington" cannot crane to look into it and watch whoever walk about it. And in this garden goes a living speck, as it were, in gray, talking, swinging a white clinched hand, and trying vigorously and resolutely to get a hold upon the significance of the whole vast process in which he and his island of government are set.

Always before him there have been political resultants, irrelevancies and futilities of the White House; and after him, it would seem, they may come again. I do not know anything of the quality of Mr. Bryan, who may perhaps succeed him. He, too, is something of an exception, it seems, and keeps a still developing and inquiring mind. Beyond is a vista of figures of questionable value so far as I am concerned. They have this in common that they don't stand for thought. For the present, at any rate, a personality, extraordinarily representative, occupies the White House. And what he chooses to say publicly (and some things he says privately) are, by an exceptional law of acoustics, heard in San Francisco, in Chicago, in New Orleans, in New York and Boston, in Kansas, and Maine, throughout the whole breadth of the United States of America. He[Pg 250] assimilates contemporary thought, delocalizes and reverberates it. He is America for the first time vocal to itself.

What is America saying to itself?

I've read most of the President's recent speeches, and they fall in oddly with that quality in his face that so many photographs even convey, a complex mingling of will and a critical perplexity. Taken all together they amount to a mass of not always consistent suggestions, that and conflict overlap. Things crowd upon him, rebate scandals, insurance scandals, the meat scandals, this insecurity and that. The conditions of his position press upon him. It is no wonder he gives out no single, simple note....

The plain fact is that in the face of the teeming situations of to-day America does not know what to do. Nobody, except those happily gifted individuals who can see but one aspect of an intricate infinitude, imagines any simple solution. For the rest the time is one of ample, vigorous, and at times impatient inquiry, and of intense disillusionment with old assumptions and methods. And never did a President before so reflect the quality of his time. The trend is altogether away from the anarchistic individualism of the nineteenth century, that much is sure, and towards some constructive scheme which, if not exactly socialism, as socialism is defined, will be, at any rate, closely analogous to socialism. This is the immense change of thought and attitude in which President Roosevelt participates, and to which he[Pg 251] gives a unique expression. Day by day he changes with the big world about him—contradicts himself....

I came away with the clear impression that neither President Roosevelt nor America will ever, as some people prophesy, "declare for socialism," but my impression is equally clear, that he and all the world of men he stands for, have done forever with the threadbare formulæ that have served America such an unconscionable time. We talked of the press and books and of the question of color, and then for a while about the rôle of the universities in the life of the coming time.

Now it is a curious thing that as I talked with President Roosevelt in the garden of the White House there came back to me quite forcibly that undertone of doubt that has haunted me throughout this journey. After all, does this magnificent appearance of beginnings which is America, convey any clear and certain promise of permanence and fulfilment whatever? Much makes for construction, a great wave of reform is going on, but will it drive on to anything more than a breaking impact upon even more gigantic uncertainties and dangers. Is America a giant childhood or a gigantic futility, a mere latest phase of that long succession of experiments which has been and may be for interminable years—may be indeed altogether until the end—man's social history? I can't now recall how our discursive talk settled towards that, but it is clear to me that I[Pg 252] struck upon a familiar vein of thought in the President's mind. He hadn't, he said, an effectual disproof of any pessimistic interpretation of the future. If one chose to say America must presently lose the impetus of her ascent, that she and all mankind must culminate and pass, he could not conclusively deny that possibility. Only he chose to live as if this were not so.

That remained in his mind. Presently he reverted to it. He made a sort of apology for his life against the doubts and scepticisms that, I fear, must be in the background of the thoughts of every modern man who is intellectually alive. He mentioned a little book of mine, an early book full of the deliberate pessimism of youth, in which I drew a picture of a future of decadence, of a time when constructive effort had fought its fight and failed, when the inevitable segregations of an individualistic system had worked themselves out and all the hope and vigor of humanity had gone forever. The descendants of the workers had become etiolated, sinister, and subterranean monsters, the property-owners had degenerated into a hectic and feebly self-indulgent race, living fitfully amid the ruins of the present time. He became gesticulatory, and his straining voice a note higher in denying this as a credible interpretation of destiny. With one of those sudden movements of his, he knelt forward in a garden chair—we were standing before our parting beneath the colonnade—and addressed me very earnestly over[Pg 253] the back, clutching it, and then thrusting out his familiar gesture, a hand first partly open and then closed.

"Suppose after all," he said, slowly, "that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even then."...

I can see him now and hear his unmusical voice saying "The effort—the effort's worth it," and see the gesture of his clinched hand and the—how can I describe it? the friendly peering snarl of his face, like a man with the sun in his eyes. He sticks in my mind as that, as a very symbol of the creative will in man, in its limitations, its doubtful adequacy, its valiant persistence amid perplexities and confusions. He kneels out, assertive against his setting—and his setting is the White House with a background of all America.

I could almost write, with a background of all the world—for I know of no other a tithe so representative of the creative purpose, the good-will in men as he. In his undisciplined hastiness, his limitations, his prejudices, his unfairness, his frequent errors, just as much as in his force, his sustained courage, his integrity, his open intelligence, he stands for his people and his kind.

Return to the The Future in America Summary Return to the H.G. Wells Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson