4. Inside Politics

PUBLICATION of the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region did not have to wait for Powell’s appropriation. Two days after Schurz received it, on April 3, 1878, he passed it on to the House, where it was referred to the Committee on Appropriations and ordered printed.1 While it was still in press, and before the campaign of reform had got past the jockeying stage in committee, the situation was given a new turn by the death of Joseph Henry.2

From the time of his nearly profitless trip to Washington in the winter of 1867 Powell had been able to count on Henry as a backer and friend. His scientific eminence and his position outside of politics made Henry at once peculiarly dependable and peculiarly unusable. His death, in terms of its effect on Powell, was similarly ambiguous, for though it deprived the Major of a man whose friendship and advice he had needed and valued, it created a power vacuum in government science. Henry’s death opened possibilities that Henry’s living sobriety and objectivity might have annulled.

When he died, Joseph Henry was President of the National Academy of Sciences, that congregation of the country’s best scientific brains which had been chartered by Congress in 1863 with the function of advising the Congress on technical subjects when called upon. Its advice had not previously been asked in the survey squabbles, perhaps because as a body it might be too fair, and none of the contestants was quite prepared to risk a fair judgment.

But now into Henry’s emptied shoes stepped Professor Othniel C. Marsh of Yale,3 one of the greatest of American paleontologists, friend of Huxley and Darwin, contributor in real measure to the documentation of biological evolution, and nephew moreover of the philanthropic banker George Peabody. Marsh had single-handed run Columbus Delano out of his job as Secretary of the Interior in the 1875 scandal about the cheating of Red Cloud’s Sioux. He was more than an illustrious scientist with a firsthand knowledge of the West; he was a man of power, shrewd in political manipulation, solidly backed. And he was a far more eager ally for Powell than Henry would have been. For years he had been engaged in a bitter and rather disgraceful running fight with Professor Edward D. Cope of Pennsylvania in the collection and identification of vertebrate fossils — and Cope was a Hayden man many of whose scientific papers had appeared in Hayden’s reports and bulletins. More than that, Marsh personally disliked Hayden: he thought Hayden had tried to blackmail him into, supporting the Hayden Survey in exchange for election to the National Academy in 1874. Anti-Hayden, pro-reform (as he had demonstrated in the Red Cloud episode), a close friend of Clarence King, Henry Adams, Abram Hewitt, and the group of liberal Republicans vocal through Godkin’s Nation and social in the Century Club, Marsh was a powerful ally. And not only was he eminent, powerful, and incorruptible, but he was also, in his personal and scientific rivalries, peculiarly mean, intemperate, and vindictive. When he took over as acting president of the National Academy he brought the Academy for the first time to the place where it might be used in the service of private or public causes.

It is not clear who first suggested using the Academy to help arrange the consolidation of the Western surveys to eliminate duplication and waste. Abram Hewitt took the responsibility, or the credit;4 Samuel Emmons credits the idea to Clarence King.5 But from the way in which Powell loomed larger and larger behind the scenes as the situation developed, the way in which the reformers of the surveys began to incorporate more and more of his “general plan” for land policy, and the way in which the Academy came to sound more and more like his mouthpiece, it is not extravagantly unlikely that the idea of using the Academy may have been his. Henry Nash Smith, who has studied this episode most closely, sees Powell as the motive force.6 In any case, whether Hewitt acted on his own initiative or whether someone else put the idea into his head, he was playing directly into Powell’s hand when on June 20, 1878, he inserted a clause in the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill referring the vexed question of the Western surveys to the National Academy for advice and suggestions.

In that same Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill, without serious debate or strain, Powell got his largest appropriation to date, $50,000. Hayden got his customary $75,000, but it was noteworthy that he remained stationary while Powell grew by two thirds. The size of the appropriation was a clear index to Powell’s increased political importance.

For lack of documentary evidence, it is as hard to tell who selected the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region as the principal blueprint of reform as it is to tell who first suggested asking advice from the National Academy. But the importance of the report was obviously very clear to its author from the beginning, and he went to great trouble to obtain copies for strategic distribution. The first edition, printed exclusively for the use of Congress, would be out of his hands. Only nine days after the passage of the Sundry Civil Bill containing Hewitt’s resolution, Powell asked Schurz for an extra $4000 for a second edition, though he could hardly have hoped a second edition would come out in time to do him much good. Actually the second edition was not authorized until March 3, 1879, when Congress approved two thousand copies for the House, one thousand for the Senate, and two thousand for the Department of the Interior. For use in 1878, Major Powell had to devise other expedients, and he was hampered excessively by the rule which said that Congressional publications could be dispensed only on the signed order of a member of Congress. He had his amanuensis, Joseph Stanley-Brown, send form order slips to every Congressman; any one which came back signed entitled him to extract a copy of his book from the custodian of documents.7 That way, he managed to obtain enough copies for his immediate needs. But in the meantime he did not neglect the National Academy.

Marsh, upon his return from Europe in August, 1878, appointed a committee to investigate the surveys. There was not a Hayden man on it, though John Strong Newberry, acutely anti-Hayden, was a member, Joseph D. Dana of Yale, a Marsh colleague, was another, and Simon Newcomb of the Naval Observatory, a close friend of Marsh, was a third. The others, William B. Rogers, William P. Trowbridge, and Alexander Agassiz of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, were a reasonable cross-section of the country’s important scientists without special bias or affiliation.

On September 24, 1878, Powell scraped together eight copies of the Arid Region and sent them to Marsh to be distributed to the Academy committee. He also asked to be allowed to talk to the committee when it met. While he waited for this opportunity he busied his staff in sending out copies of the report, however obtained from the watchdog of documents, to western newspapers.8 In promoting his own survey he had not much bothered to woo the press, but the issues here were of another and higher order, and their importance to Westerners extreme.

Presumably he had his chance to talk to the committee. He also had other opportunities that made him virtually a sub rosa committee member. On October 3, 1878, when Marsh wrote Schurz tentatively outlining the group’s thinking, Schurz passed his letter on to Powell for comment and suggestion,9 though as head of one of the surveys concerned Powell might have been thought outside the deliberations. Certainly Hayden and Wheeler were given no such opportunity. It was a tight inside job. On November 6 the committee made its report to the Academy and the Academy accepted it in full, with Professor Cope casting the one dissenting vote. On November 26 Marsh forwarded the Academy’s recommendations to Congress.

They called for much more than the consolidation of the four surveys. The Academy suggested the elimination of the surveyors-general and the practice of subletting the land-parceling surveys to local contractors. It wanted land parceling made the job of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and that whole survey moved over from the jurisdiction of the Treasury to that of the Department of the Interior. It reduced Hayden and eliminated Wheeler by recommending the consolidation of the Hayden, Wheeler, and Powell Surveys under the Department of the Interior. (The King Survey had finished its job.) And it suggested appointment of a public lands commission to study and codify the public land laws, presumably in directions sketched in Powell’s report and in his testimony before the Academy’s committee. Except in their cautious withholding of specific cures for the land law ills, the Academy’s report was identical with the program that Powell, Gilbert, and Dutton had been actively advocating from the Survey headquarters, 10 and almost wholly derivative from Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region.

But the most revealing comment on the Academy’s action, the wink that tipped the hand of the insider, came from Powell’s confidential clerk James Pilling. At the time of the Academy report Pilling was in Boston searching among the libraries for titles to go into his comprehensive bibliography of the Indian languages. On December 5 he wrote his boss with his tongue in his cheek: “I see the Academy has made its report and it sounds wonderfully like something I have read — and perhaps written — before. What will become of we poor ethnologists?”11

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