IT IS EASY for an enthusiast in Western history to exaggerate the importance of the opening West in the years following the Civil War, and to forget how complex and perplexing the nation’s other problems were during Grant’s two terms. It was not only in the West that we suffered from growing pains. The Internal Revenue scandals, the Indian Bureau scandals, the Land Office scandals, the Credit Mobilier scandal, the collapse of Jay Cooke’s Northern Pacific, were convincing evidence of the importance of the West as the place of boodle, if nothing else. But it is essential to remember that Washington too, during the war and after, had acquired a new potency. Centralization bred by the crisis did not cease with the crisis. Not only was Washington preoccupied with the country’s novel and uncomfortable position as a world power, but it was the source of policies, bureaus, and departments — and men — who controlled the West in its critical opening years.
Powell himself, from 1870 on, was a forceful part of that Washington which had formed during the war and which compacted itself in the dozen years afterward. He had a large hand in the creation of new central bureaus and in the formulation of new policies, none of which can be understood in purely Western terms. They must be fitted into a context in which the nation’s capital and its concerns are central 1 — that capital which is vividly present in The Education of Henry Adams and in Adams’ mordant novel Democracy, and in Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age, and in the writings and the careers of Hamilton Fish, Abram Hewitt, Carl Schurz. The interaction between Western interests and Washington power is sourly apparent in the Reminiscences of Senator William Stewart of Nevada, the sagebrush statesman for whom Mark Twain was briefly and unhappily secretary, and who may have sat for Twain’s portrait of the Congressman: “the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.” 2 There is an astonishing amount of this new sense of centrality buried in the publications of the various government bureaus and the extraordinary collection of scientific men drawn capital-ward to staff them. It shines in the revolutionary sociology of Lester Ward, for a time one of Powell’s employees and all his life one of Powell’s friends. It is in the enormous, encompassing, encyclopedic learning and the crusty energy of Elliott Coues, also for a time one of Powell’s employees. The cavalier familiarity that Raphael Pumpelly — another Powell employee — showed for the whole wide world reflected a man who knew where home base was.
Out of Washington and its centralizing set of mind, as much as out of the West and the Western temper, came institutions that have shaped the West and to a lesser degree the whole country: Geological Survey, National Park Service, Forest Service, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Weather Bureau, Bureau of Standards, Bureau of Mines, Reclamation Service, many of them proliferating out of the mitotic cell of the Smithsonian. Government science before the Civil War was largely, though not quite exclusively, Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian. Geology was a States’ rights matter, topography and mapping were diversions to occupy the peacetime Army, time and weather were for the Navy to play with, and too much of private science was the occupation of amateurs of the kind that Powell himself started out to be. Postwar Washington permitted and encouraged the development of professionals and put them in charge of operations of incalculable potential. Less than twenty years after the war, Washington was one of the great scientific centers of the world. It was so for a multitude of causes, but partly because America had the virgin West for Science to open, and in Washington forged keys to open it with.
Henry Adams’ heroine Madeline Lee, who went up to the capital “to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces, to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power,” 3 was after the motive power of politics, but she could quite as effectively have studied in the same years and the same place the motive power of American science.
That science was not merely becoming centralized; it was growing up with a rush. It was only a generation since the paleontological Munchausen, Albert Koch, had edified the nation with his theories, or since sober Professor Silliman of Yale had attempted to tie geological history to the Noachian deluge. It was less than fifty years since the Reverend Frederick Rapp had interpreted fossil footprints in a slab of limestone as the footprints of the Christ. There were still plenty (including Clarence King and his first master, Professor Whitney, now of Yale) who clung to their belief in catastrophism as the explanation of mountains. George Catlin would propose a theory of the origin of the Gulf Stream in this very year 1870 that would raise some scientific hair, and Joaquin Miller a little later would poetically imagine the formation of the Grand Canyon by the collapse of the crust over an underground river hundreds of miles long. In the American Journal of Science not too long before Washington began to collect and systematize scientific learning, a writer had explained the glacial drift in Velikovsky terms as having been caused by the rush of waters at a time when the earth’s rotation stopped.
In 1870 plenty of speculation and plenty of pure nonsense passed for science. But in Washington, after the Civil War, there grew up a tough-minded group of men hard to fool, intent upon verification, and with unprecedented government support. At their backs they had the whole new West for a laboratory. Of that group and in that West John Wesley Powell was one of the first.