Good for Nothing

James Morone

  • Born Losers: A History of Failure in America by Scott Sandage
    Harvard, 362 pp, £22.95, February 2005, ISBN 0 674 01510 X

In 1629, King Charles I granted the Massachusetts Bay Company a standard commercial charter containing a clerical slip that changed the world. The document charged the stockholders with duly electing a board of management – a governor and 18 assistants – and holding them to account at quarterly meetings. However, crown officials failed to specify where the company headquarters should be (London would have been the usual assumption) and the wily leaders of the company absconded to New England, where they transformed quarterly meetings into government sessions, stockholders into freemen, assistants into magistrates, the governor into a Governor, and then piously declared their new regime to be ‘a city on a hill’ ready to serve as a model of divinely inspired governance for the rest of the world (well, for England, which came to the same thing). All freemen could vote once they proved that God had preordained them to enter heaven. Here was a symbol for the ages: early Americans turning a business charter into a constitution and voting stockholders into saints.

When it came to sorting the saved from the damned, New England Puritans took wealth to be a most propitious sign. The fortune you amassed here below testified to your fortunes in the hereafter. No culture has ever found a better spur to hard work – the Puritan ethos famously makes for a spirited form of capitalism. The United States would soon develop a frenzied economics smacking of religious mania.

By the 19th century, the race to get ahead had turned fast and reckless. ‘Go ahead is our maxim and our password,’ the New York politician Philip Hone wrote in 1837. ‘We go ahead with a vengeance, regardless of the consequences and indifferent about the value of human life.’ Most contemporaries were more exuberant about the American ‘passwords’: get ahead, go ahead, ascend, succeed and prosper. Even very wealthy presidential candidates began boasting about their rise from rude origins – the log cabin was an American cliché by 1840.

The quest to get ahead inspired unusual moral priorities. Americans treat sins against marriage, Tocqueville wrote in 1835, ‘with a severity unknown in the rest of the world’, yet attach no stigma to ‘base cupidity’. Greed was – and is – just fine. Take the celebrated land grab of 22 April 1899. Thousands of people lined up along the Oklahoma border and at high noon, as federal agents sounded trumpets, surged into the territory and snatched whatever land they could. Today Oklahoma proudly calls itself ‘the Sooner state’ – a homage to the scallywags who snuck in and grabbed their plots before the official land rush began. Still, not all standards crumbled: public officials primly prohibited alcohol during the free-for-all.

Today, the great economic race even expiates vices like drinking. When a public relations firm recently faced the delicate task of marketing hangover cures, it appealed directly to the prime virtue. ‘You have to entertain clients,’ reads the advertisement. ‘Or go on the road with the boss.’ Well, the hangover pills are your secret path to success. When they see you ready for work the next morning, ‘your clients will be impressed. Your boss will be impressed. And you’ll be on the fast track.’ Beneath which striving lies the same old Calvinist presumption: success reveals virtue.

Abraham Lincoln famously recited the market credo when he declared that any man who was ‘industrious and honest and sober’ would win riches. He left the inevitable corollary to preachers such as Henry Ward Beecher: ‘If men have not enough it is from want of provident care, and foresight, and industry and frugality. No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin.’

This moral economy nourishes a distinctive literary genre. Americans adore success manuals, and the more they sound like religious tracts, the better. The 19th-century classics energetically enumerated the deadly snares on the path to riches: bad companions, dissolute habits or – that classic trap – the extravagant wife. Purity, hard work and virtue offered the only sure route to Victory. Horatio Alger, a Unitarian minister (who had been accused of molesting children), became an American icon by publishing more than a hundred books for boys, every one of them with the same trusty plot. Thanks to his pluck and virtue, a young fellow rises from rags to riches; on his way up he passes the lazy, the overprivileged and the boys who smoke, drink or lie. To this day, business groups sponsor Horatio Alger awards honouring local exemplars of the familiar plot. The real political message lies not in the platitudes about winning wealth but in the celebration of the race itself. Never mind the yawning differences in education, class, or life prospects; any talented American who works hard will grow rich. And always the cold corollary: if you failed, you’re a loser and have only your inadequate self to blame.

Scott Sandage has written a splendid book about this American madness. He takes his chorus from Emerson: ‘There is always a reason, in the man, for his good or bad fortune.’ Talented workers grow rich. Sandage contends that this myth – he’ll catch hell from right-wing reviewers for alternately calling it a myth and a lie – developed into its modern form during the 19th century and has clung to the culture ever since. He makes the story fresh by focusing on the losers. Failure, he concludes, ‘is not the dark side of the American dream; it is the foundation of it.’

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