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January 11, 2004

Sid Says: You Can Go Farther If You Take Others With You

To put John Siddall in context, I've had to learn a lot about the muckraking movement, and the founder of the magazine that began it, S.S. McClure.

On December 31st, 1902, there was no muckracking movement. A month later, there was, though the epithet itself did not exist until Teddy Roosevelt began using it 4 years later. The January 1903* issue of McClure's contained the third installment of Ida Tarbell's Standard Oil expose, Lincoln Steffan's The Shame of Minneapolis, and Ray Stannard Baker's story on the United Mine Workers. It was, and is still, considered one of the most important issues of a magazine ever published in the U.S.

And McClure knew it.

How many of those who have read through this number of the magazine noticed that it contains three articles on one subject? We did not plan it so; it is a coincidence that the January McClure's is such an arraignment of American character as should make every one of us stop and think. How many noticed that?

The leading article, "The Shame of Minneapolis," might have been called "The American Contempt of Law." That title could well have served for the current chapter of Miss Tarbell's History of Standard Oil. And it would have fitted perfectly Mr. Baker's "The Right to Work." All together, these articles come pretty near showing how universal is this dangerous trait of ours.

Miss Tarbell has our capitalists conspiring among themselves, deliberately, shrewdly, upon legal advice, to break the law so far as it restrained them, and to misuse it to restrain others who were in their way. Mr. Baker shows labor, the ancient enemy of capital, and the chief complainant of the trusts' unlawful acts, itself committing and excusing crimes. And in "The Shame of Minneapolis" we see the administration o£ a city employing criminals to commit crimes for the profit of the elected officials, while the citizens - Americans of good stock and more than average culture, and honest, healthy Scandinavians - stood by complacent and not alarmed.

Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens - all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it? The lawyers? Some of the best lawyers in this country are hired, not to go into court to defend cases, but to advise corporations and business firms how they can get around the law without too great a risk of punishment. The judges? Too many of them so respect the laws that for some "error" or quibble they restore to office and liberty men convicted on evidence overwhelmingly convincing to common sense. The churches? We know of one, an ancient and wealthy establishment, which had to be compelled by a Tammany hold-over health officer to put its tenements in sanitary condition. The colleges? They do not understand.

There is no one left; none but all of us. Capital is learning (with indignation at labor's unlawful acts) that its rival's contempt of law is a menace to property. Labor has shrieked the belief that the illegal power of capital is a menace to the worker. These two are drawing together. Last November when a strike was threatened by the yard-men on all the railroads centering in Chicago, the men got together and settled by raising wages, and raising freight rates too. They made the public pay. We all are doing our worst and making the public pay. The public is the people. We forget that we all are the people; that while each of us in his group can shove off on the rest the bill of today, the debt is only postponed; the rest are passing it on back to us. We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in the end the sum total of the debt will be our liberty.

John Siddall played a important part in the birth of the muckraking movement, though admittedly it is an easily overlooked one. In battle, Generals aren't much good without a staff to organize things, though the staff gets precious little recognition at the end of the campaign. Staffers are integral, but overlooked.

So it was with Siddall, as this longish passage from the McClure biography, Success Story, illustrates;

The best-grounded, most careful, most substantial, and most devastating contribution made by the muckrakers to the general enlightenment was by Miss Tarbell. Her History of the Standard Oil Company, at first planned as a series of three articles and extended to six on the basis of her preliminary research, reached a total of nineteen before she was done. Few if any serials in American magazine history have had so great an impact on their period.

At the time she was writing, Standard Oil enjoyed almost a complete monopoly. The company refined nearly eighty-five per cent of the country's crude oil, most of which was still produced in the Oil Regions of Pennsylvania; it owned nearly all the forty thousand miles of pipe lines and carried through them virtually all the crude oil produced; it manufactured more than eighty-six per cent of the country's illuminating oil; its control over the price of all types of oil was absolute. This monopoly, so cordially detested at the time, so respectfully admired in retrospect, was the more remarkable because the wells it owned produced less than two per cent of the total. Standard Oil's strangle hold had been applied at the expense of the producers; it was maintained at the expense of the consumers. Most remarkable of all, John D. Rockefeller and his associates had constructed their monopoly in less than twenty years. It was the story of this commercial exploit that Miss Tarbell had undertaken to tell.

She set out to write a balanced study, to be neither apologist nor critic but only dispassionate historian. She conscientiously sought out those Standard Oil officials who would talk to her—notably Henry Rogers, the suave and courtly chairman of the company's manufacturing committee, and Henry Flagler, who had been one of Rockefeller's earliest partners—to check the accuracy of her material and to solicit the company's point of view. She used terms of the highest praise for the company's "perfection of organization" and for the "ability and daring," the "extraordinary intelligence and lucidity," and the "indefatigable energy" of its officers. It was, she wrote, "the most perfect business machine ever devised."

But in the course of her thorough, painstaking inquiry, Miss Tarbell was bound to form a bias. It was inescapable. Each fact she found—each affidavit, each of the many legislative investigations into the burgeoning monopoly, each of the many judicial proceedings mounted against it—served to deepen her cold contempt for the Standard's "illegal and iniquitous" policies, for its "huge bulk, blackened by commercial sin," for its "contemptuous indifference to fair play," for the "greed [and] unscrupulousness" of its officers. It was the logic of those facts that set her against the Standard and ranged her on the side of the independent producers.

To dig up the facts was not easy, for Rockefeller and his associates had been at pains to conceal their methods. Secrecy was second nature to the officials of Standard Oil. But Miss Tarbell found a valuable research assistant, John Siddall, a short, plump, excitable youngster who was anti-Standard by background, by temperament, and by conviction. Siddall had been born and raised in the bitterly anti-Standard Oil Regions, and when Miss Tarbell hired him he already had the crusader's zeal, for he had served as secretary of the Board of Education in Mayor Tom Johnson's reform administration of Cleveland. At Miss Tarbell's request, Siddall went on the payroll of McClure's and was later put to work as a desk editor in New York.

McClure was by all accounts a genius, and generous to boot. He was also notoriously... not unstable, exactly, but prone to alternating fits of optimism and despair. We'd be quick to label him a manic-depressive today, I suspect.

But he helped launch or popularize the the careers of hundreds of people--among them Arthur Conan Doyle, Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Dreiser and Jack London. The list could easily go on. Though the editorial below is ostensibly about Charles Schwab, one can easily picture Siddall reflecting back on his years at McClure's when he wrote it.


You Can Go Farther If You Take Others With You

It is easy to understand how a man might be three or four or even ten times as successful in business as the general average of men. But when a man is a hundred or a thousand times as successful as his fellows we look on with amazement, and, because we cannot comprehend it, we usually say that he is a howling genius, and let it go at that.

But calling a man a howling genius does not get us anywhere. It does not explain anything. It is an unsatisfactory definition, because it contains no hint or help. Nobody knows exactly what a genius is.

Now, I am no diagnostician of greatness. I am just as much puzzled as anybody when it comes to defining the qualities that make for superlative achievement. Take, for example, Charles M. Schwab, whose story captivates the imagination of most men. I cannot take Schwab apart and show you why, starting as a day laborer without influence or a dollar to his name, he has turned out to be what he is—a giant in the business world. But I know his story through and through, and as I have considered it this thought has come to me:

There are probably dozens of men in the steel business who know almost as much about that business as Schwab knows. But where other men concentrate on their own personal contribution to the perfection of some part of the business, perhaps some technical part, Schwab takes an enormous interest in studying and developing men whose talents can be used in broadening and extending the business. You will find that note running all through his story—a curious watchfulness for the new man and almost childlike enthusiasm when he discovers him. Take his delight over Eugene Grace, for example. Grace was a switchman eight years ago, and now Schwab has made him president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation and his income is a million dollars a year. Schwab is so tickled over Grace that he can hardly hold himself in. He predicts that Grace will someday be the biggest industrial figure in America!

In otherwords, a man like Schwab, by finding and encouraging men, and by inspiring their loyalty, carries himself and all his associates on to a success which none of them could achieve alone. He establishes a long battle line of organization in which there are great numbers of men intelligently used and genuinely appreciated by a commander who realizes that his own success is manifolded by the work of his associates.

In business it is not the individual producer who gets the biggest or the surest rewards: it is the organization builder. And any man, no matter how small his business, ought to recognize that fact. Unless an employer is interested in finding, training, holding and dividing with good men, the business he is engaged in can never grow. It will remain the work of one man; and the work of one man is bound to be limited in size and profits.

You may think that you are in the shoe business or the shirt business or the furniture business—but you are mistaken. After all is said and done, we are all in the same business—the man business—no matter what we make or sell. Some of the "big fellows" see that point more clearly than the rest of us do--and multiply their power and profits accordingly.


Next: Good Brains Don't All Travel The Same Way

*The January 1903 issure of McClure's exists in many places, the UNC Libraries among them. It does not, however, appear to be online in any fashion. Once I've finished with Siddall it might be something to consider publishing to the Net. However, to do the magazine justice would require posting large image files of each page rather than just the text--expensive in storage and bandwith terms.

Posted by Bigwig at January 11, 2004 11:42 PM | TrackBack
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Interesting article and insights.

Posted by: Yomamma at January 12, 2004 10:22 AM

It's amazing how smart Sid's conventional wisdom is.

You do realize, of course, that you are making a profoundly conservative point by printing Sidall's writings, and exposing the rest of us to tried & true ways of looking at life. What I like about the stuff you've published so far is Sidall looks at the world as it is, not as it ain't. We could use a bit more of that these days.

Posted by: Blackavar at January 12, 2004 11:30 PM