BY 1879 CLARENCE KING had shown every sign of living up to the extravagant expectations of his multitude of friends. The qualities that had instantly captivated Henry Adams when the two met in a shack in Estes Park in the summer of 1871, that combination of “physical energy, social standing, mental scope and training, wit, geniality, and science, that seemed superlatively American and irresistibly strong,”1 had brought him very young to great prominence. His Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada gave him a place with Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller as a founder of a California school of literature. His exposé of the 1872 Diamond Swindle was a spectacular stroke of imagination and integrity. His Systematic Geology, the culminating volume in the reports of the King Survey which he had conceived and promoted when he was barely twenty-five, gave him entrée into any scientific society. He had expensive tastes, glittering friends. Schurz and others in high places were his intimates; with Henry and Clover Adams and the John Hays he was one of the tight little group that called itself the Five of Hearts and made the most fascinating conversation that any American salon ever heard. King’s conversation was proverbial, almost fabulous. He must have been one of the nimblest and most challenging talkers of his time, and in the Pacific Union Club of San Francisco or the Century Club in New York he drew hearers as light draws moths.2
“He knew more than Adams did of art and poetry; he knew America, especially west of the hundredth meridian, better than anyone; he knew the professor by heart, and he knew the Congressman better than he did the professor. He knew even women; even the American woman; even the New York woman, which is saying much. Incidentally he knew more practical geology than was good for him.... He had in him something of the Greek — a touch of Alcibiades or Alexander. One Clarence King only existed in the world.” 3
So much for the man. As for the job, the consolidated survey now inherited by this paragon was thought by Abram Hewitt the solidest accomplishment of his twelve years in Congress — and Hewitt was considered by Adams the “most useful public man in Washington.” 4
The possibilities were stimulating, the director fantastically able. Yet at the very beginning King ran into ambiguities in the organic law, which was a last-minute compromise written in as an amendment to an appropriation bill and so loosely phrased that no one could be sure either of the director’s duties or the scope of the survey’s activities. The law discontinued the existing surveys and made an appropriation of $100,000 for the new one, directing that all its collections go to the National Museum. It further said that the director, at a salary of $6000, should “have the direction of the Geological Survey, and the classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain. And that the Director and members of the Geological Survey shall have no personal or private interests in the lands or mineral wealth of the region under survey, and shall execute no surveys or examinations for private parties or corporations.” 5 And that was all.
Very early in his administration King consulted with the Appropriations Committee and with Schurz in an attempt to discover what the law meant by the term “national domain.” 6 Upon their definition depended the whole scope of the survey, for if “national domain” meant “public lands,” (as Schurz shortly and rather absurdly ruled that it did) then no real survey of mineral resources was possible. All working mines were on private or corporate land, as were many, undeveloped mineral veins. Only if “national domain” could be interpreted as meaning the whole area of national sovereignty could these be examined.
Also, what sort of classification of the public lands did Congress have in mind? Did it want a careful scientific examination based upon accurate — and slow and expensive — topographical and hydrographic and geological surveys, or did it want merely a quick rule-of-thumb classification for the use of the General Land Office? And if it wanted this latter, how about the fact that up to now the General Land Office had always made that rough classification for itself?
The uncomfortable fact was that the organic law of the Geological Survey contained unrelated leftovers from Powell’s campaign for a reform of public land policies, and the leftovers now embarrassed King. Powell was himself unable to unsnarl the practical difficulties. The Public Lands Commission of which he was the dominant member finished its deliberations in the spring of 1880, and it had to conclude that no bureau, either the Geological Survey or the General Land Office, could accurately classify the public lands in advance of sale without temporarily halting the spread of settlement. It was a dilemma Powell would face later in connection with his irrigation surveys: planning for a completely empty public domain would have been simple enough, but planning for a public domain already planlessly, wastefully, and competitively filling up was another matter. King, assuming that Congress had not contemplated the closing of the public domain while he classified its lands, and seeing that his appropriation was nowhere near large enough for that sort of classification anyway, simply accepted that aspect of his stated duties, and then ignored it in practice.7
Restriction of his geological work to the public lands was more hampering, for a national survey whose field of work was steadily shrinking as settlement spread, and whose preparation of maps and tracing of geological strata and mineral veins were constantly being stopped at uncrossable boundary lines, would be completely frustrated. Mineral surveys would be most impeded, and minerals were precisely the thing King was most interested in. Though he might give up the classification of the public lands, he could not give up on this other issue. Immediately he stimulated the introduction of a resolution authorizing the extension of survey activities to the states as well as the “national domain” as interpreted by Schurz.8 He pushed that resolution hard, but it ran into opposition and died in committee. During the recess he maneuvered for its consideration, and when Congress re-convened he pushed it again with Chairman H. G. Davis of the Appropriations Committee. To forestall local jealousies and fears, he sent telegrams in February, 1880, to the directors of all the extant state geological surveys, assuring them that he had no intention of infringing their rights and territories and promising his fullest co-operation with their work.9
His assurances were not enough, and King’s personal charm was not enough. Throughout his brief administration the Geological Survey was restricted to the public lands. Even if King had been in the best of health and had remained completely absorbed in his job it is doubtful that he could have pushed the resolution through. And actually he was neither healthy nor absorbed. During the summer of 1880 there were two ominous symptoms of what was in store for the best and brightest man of his generation. One was a bout of illness, prophetic of the breakdown that some years later would put him into the Bloomingdale asylum. The other was an increasing tendency to give only the minimum of time to the affairs of the Geological Survey, and in his off weeks to go whoring after Mexican gold mines. In a few months they would lure him completely out of the government service.
King’s friends all believed, and wrote it voluminously into the record, that he left the Geological Survey to devote himself to personal scientific studies. They could have seen by his production and by his actions that he didn’t. His scientific work after 1880 is negligible, even trivial, and his days and nights after he retired from the survey were obviously not spent over scientific books. He quit the Geological Survey because he frankly wanted to be rich. The six thousand dollars he received as salary was a contemptible fraction of his money needs. He had relatives to support and his own tastes were extravagant. He maintained a valet, he belonged to expensive clubs, he collected art objects, his bachelor habits ran strongly to expensive suppers and champagne. By 1880 his personal indulgences were a more compelling motive than his love for abstract science.
He took leave from the Geological Survey in September, 1880, to go west and recover from his illness. When he felt himself well again, in Arizona, he wrote for further leave and used it for a trip by muleback into Sonora to examine a mine — a thing his government position prevented him from doing in the States. He did more than inspect it: he liked its looks so well that he exerted his charm on owners and public officials in Hermosillo and convinced them that he was just the man, as actually he was, to import modem methods and turn the property into a big money-maker. Returning to New York in February, 1881, after more than five months’ absence from his office, he paid little attention to the office. In his pocket he had authorization to promote and develop and modernize the Prietas mine, and during the next few weeks when he might have been fighting the Survey’s battles in Congress he was out on other business half the time. Much of the time while his clerk McChesney sent shotgun telegrams to a half dozen people trying to locate the boss, King was in a close huddle with Alexander Agassiz, already rich on Lake Superior copper, and his brother-in-law Henry Lee Higginson, whom Boston would remember as the founder of the Boston Symphony and the donor of Soldiers’ Field and the Harvard Union.
Both Agassiz and Higginson were as open to a good investment as they were to a sound benefaction, and they were no more immune than other men to King’s persuasiveness. The Grand Central Mining Company had already been formed with the three as partners when King sent his resignation to President Garfield on March 11, 1881. On March 17 Mrs. Henry Adams wrote her father, “King went away for good on Monday, to our extreme regret, having got out of office, named and seen confirmed his successor, Powell of Illinois, in whom he has great confidence. He did it so noiselessly that Professor Hayden, who would have done his best to upset it, knew nothing of it till it was done.” 10
One may be permitted a small doubt about how much persuasion King had to use on Garfield to get Powell named in his place. Garfield, just inaugurated, had been a Powell supporter since 1868, had carried through Congress the bill granting Powell’s party the right to draw supplies from army posts, had backed him in the investigations of 1874 and supported his consolidation and land-reform scheme in 1879. He had even got a favor in return, when Powell loaned him his young secretary, Joseph Stanley-Brown, in 1878. When Powell’s name came before the new President in 1881, Stanley-Brown was Garfield’s confidential secretary, and in a little while would be his son-in-law. Through Stanley-Brown, through years of personal friendship, through Garfield’s position as a regent of the Smithsonian, Powell was closer to Garfield than to any President under whom he served in more than thirty years. Actually he was a good deal closer than King was. And Garfield himself told the National Academy shortly after the change that he consulted only one man about a successor to King. The man was not King, but Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian, who recommended Powell. The discrepancy between the two stories Would be frivolous if it were not a symptomatic revelation of how King’s friends, and perhaps King himself, exaggerated his influence and effect.
Overpraised or not, Clarence King in the spring of 1881 left science and began a period of fabulous money-making, fabulous eating and drinking, fabulous coursing of Europe’s artistic capitals, fabulous and quixotic benefactions, fabulous and nearly criminal carelessness in the conduct of his firm’s London office. “The chances were great,” Henry Adams had felt in the early days of their friendship, “that he could, whenever he chose to quit the Government service, take the pick of the gold and silver, copper or coal, and build up his fortune as he pleased.... With ordinary luck he would die at eighty the richest and most many-sided genius of his day.” 11
He looked to be well on the road. And he left to Powell his infant bureau, hamstrung on the problem of land classification and imprisoned within the public lands, a bureau with a small staff and a hundred-thousand-dollar budget and with the unknowns of half the continent for its targets.
Powell already had in hand another bureau that might have been considered sufficient occupation. Though its 1881 budget was only $25,000, it took for its province the whole Science of Man as it was revealed among the North American Indians. Four years before, Henry Adams, had urged such an organized study upon Lewis Morgan as an indispensable foundation for the modern study of history,12 and Morgan’s preface to his monumental Ancient Society in 1877 had echoed Adams’ conviction that American ethnology was destined to make over the fashionable theories of history.
Powell, Morgan, and Adams would all be involved in that making over, Adams not the least. A passenger visiting the engine room of American society, curiously watching the thrust and stroke of pistons and drivers, Adams saw more, and saw it more acutely, than any of his contemporaries. He was one of the few non-scientists who understood the importance and the implications of the developing scientific bureaus in Washington. As a historian who read “tubs of geology” because geology was after all only history carried a little farther back than Mr. Jefferson, he could appraise the effect on thought of the revolutionary discoveries in American geology and the study of the rich tribal cultures of America. That sort of study he might have selected for Morgan, the most eminent anthropologist in the country, or for his friends Agassiz or King, superbly equipped and with the wealth and social standing that made them better companions at dinner.
But who in fact undertook it was a one-armed little man with a bristly beard, a homemade education, and an intense concentration of purpose. When he assumed the joint directorship of the two bureaus he had created, Powell had in his control a good part of the Science of Man and the Science of the Earth, and he conceived both in the broadest possible terms. In most things he was quite as clearsighted as Adams; in some he saw even clearer. Both anthropology and geology were, as he put it, “nascent.” Both stood in need of what he was best equipped to give them — system — and system not imposed arbitrarily from without but system developed during years of hard work in the field and the office. Not only could he see more of the possibilities of his government bureaus than King could but he wanted both these jobs, his life was in them. He was incorrigibly sane, and he was also as shrewd as any opposition he was likely to encounter. He understood the Congressman, it turned out, better than King, better perhaps than Adams, who understood that “criminal class” to its foundations. And he had no ambition to get rich. If he had any single ambition it was the remarkable one of being of service to science, and through science to mankind.
In his dozen years in Washington he had grown incomparably more skillful and confident in promotion, direction, administration. By now he knew an amateur from a professional, and though he might still practice a little amiable nepotism he never put anyone but a man of the highest competence in a responsible position. He chose his men for ability and training, and his hands were on the levers of some of the most important, though not necessarily the noisiest, machinery in the engine room. Also, somewhere along the line the youthful vanity and self-importance had worn off. A scientific public hero had grown into a scientific public servant.
He was supremely and cheerfully confident. In the National Academy, the Philosophical Society, the Association for the Advancement of Science, the Cosmos Club, he moved at the core of the group which was itself the core of American science. In his two bureaus he could enlist the collaboration of the greatest, he was in correspondence with scientists the world over, and he controlled several series of enviably lavish government publications. Finally, he was blissfully, almost alarmingly free of Congressional controls. The Bureau of Ethnology was responsible only to the Smithsonian. The Geological Survey, having been created in an appropriation bill, drew a lump-sum budget without specific and detailed expenditures. Powell could spend his appropriation as seemed best to him, subject only to Treasury audit.
Thus at the beginning of the eighteen-eighties the three men whose careers inevitably suggest comparisons and contrasts to a student of history had each made his characteristic move. By 1880 Henry Adams had published his novel Democracy, though its authorship would not be commonly known until Henry Holt, the publisher, revealed it in 1918. That novel, good humored as it was, sprang from Adams’ disillusion and disgust with the country that his family had helped start on a more promising path. The cynicism and the outrageous exaggeration and paradox would grow on Adams, but they were already clear in his first anonymous novel. By 1880 Henry Adams was already on the verge of retreat from the spectacle of his country. As for Clarence King, he was already turning away from the public service at the time when he might have done most in it, and shoving off into the current of exploitation and promotion that swept along so many of his contemporaries. He was not, like Adams, hopeless and cynical. On the contrary he was a man of an extraordinary and ebullient optimism. But his hope was a hope of private wealth and personal indulgence, sadly in key with the self-interest that drove the politicians and the tycoons.
And while Adams was dipping his pen in acid to record the bazaar along Pennsylvania Avenue, and Clarence King was hopping on his mule to track down a Mexican gold mine, John Wesley Powell was sitting down in a shabby hand-me-down office to organize the sciences of the earth and the Science of Man.
A decade later he would have more sweeping powers, for a brief time and in certain matters, than any man in the nation, not excepting the President. But even in 1881 there was perhaps not a scientist in the world who enjoyed as much real power or as many opportunities.