5. Spies and Whisperers

THE ORGANIZATION, reorganization, and disorganization of government science in the eighteen-eighties was similar in many ways to the organization, reorganization, and disorganization of government welfare in the nineteen-thirties. The motive power was not a depression and a social revolution, as in the nineteen-thirties, but a scientific revolution. The aim was not the correction of catastrophe, but the seizing of opportunity. The tone was not desperate, but hopeful. But the result was in each case a sudden multiplication of government bureaus, a pronounced shift of the national emphasis as reflected in budget bills, an intense and often wrathy debate about the propriety of governmental intrusion into the preserves of private enterprise, private scholarship, private charity. It was as inevitable as that apples fall off trees that Major Powell, being one of the truly effective creators of the system of government science, should acquire, inherit, or create antagonism.

His enemies matured along with his power, and like his power they were personal, scientific, and political, sometimes all in one and sometimes separately. He moved in a scientific world, so that his personal and scientific enemies merged. His political enemies were sometimes personal and sometimes merely anti-scientific, or anti-federal, but more often than either they were the representatives of vested interests or petrified beliefs which seemed to be threatened by Powell’s policies. Their essential tone was set by the Western Senators and Congressmen who stomped his Arid Region proposals to death in 1879; their full hatred would not be generated for a decade, when it would drown whole days and weeks of congressional debates and committee hearings in adrenalin and bile. Congressmen were his most dangerous enemies because they were, as law-makers, the immediate source from which he derived power. Personally and scientifically Powell could be attacked but hardly hurt; politically he could be destroyed. And it was mainly as eaves-droppers, whisperers, and spies for these politicians that Powell’s personal and scientific enemies, always lurking behind the arras, could hope to be effective.

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, like a bull elk defeated and driven from the herd by a younger rival, had all but retreated from Washington after King’s appointment in April, 1879. His health grew steadily worse.1 He was, moreover, in spite of his personal weaknesses and his dislike of Powell, not so murderously envious as some of his followers, so that after 1879 he caused Powell no trouble. The Geological Survey was very truly a consolidation, and contained men of all four of the earlier Western surveys among its personnel, but one man it could never placate was Professor E. D. Cope.2 He took over Hayden’s place as leader of the anti-Powell forces among scientists; he sedulously beat the bushes for disgruntled former employees who might talk spitefully against Powell or Marsh. He and his engineer Fred Endlich made every effort to suborn Gannett, Holmes, Peale, and other former Hayden men from loyalty to the Survey. Undoubtedly much of his detestation for Powell was a spilling over of his monomaniac hatred of Marsh, now enjoying a comfortable appropriation as Powell’s paleontologist, but that did not lessen its malevolence. Cope was a character out of fiction, a distinguished scientist with an emotional life like that of the villain of a Jacobean tragedy. The very bones of Tertiary mammals, as he cleaned and arranged them in his Philadelphia home, cried out to him “Revenge!” Vanity and hatred stained Marsh’s career, but they utterly corroded Cope’s. He resisted Powell’s efforts to bring him into the fold, and as he could, through his connection with the holdover work of the Hayden Survey, he did everything in his power to disrupt the bureau. His vote against the committee’s report in the National Academy in 1878, a vote which he cast because he knew the report stemmed from Powell, had put him in a minority of one. He submitted an angry and ineffectual minority report to Congress in that squabble, and in later years he never changed his position by a hair.

Spite and ambition can be direct or devious. From the moment when Powell, at Hayden’s request, undertook to see the unpublished Hayden reports through the press, Cope dragged his feet. His work on paleontology was to make up Volumes III and IV of the Hayden series. First he tried to build up each volume into two book-length parts and in that way stretch his contribution to four volumes. Throughout 1882 he kept gathering new bones and adding new sections to the manuscript and new plates to the illustrations. In May, 1883, a series of letters and telegrams from Powell and Pilling3 failed to extract a finished manuscript from Cope, and the Public Printer stopped work on the book in disgust. In consultation, Powell and Hayden agreed that it was best to publish the work as it then stood, without further additions, and persuaded the printer to resume its preparation. But Cope balked. His book was not finished and he would permit no partial publication.

There the matter stood, with Cope holding the specimens, with part of Volume III set up and the plates engraved, and with an irritated Powell standing between an angry Public Printer and an angrier Professor Cope. Sometime during the months-long deadlock Cope showed his teeth. He sent back a batch of proof to Holmes, in direct charge of the Hayden publications, and in a postscript added, “Can’t we scotch Powell?”4

Holmes had been a Hayden man but he was not interested in puddling old blood. He showed the letter to Powell, who could afford to ignore it. Cope was blocked in the National Academy and in the government bureaus, and could do no harm. But then in July, 1884, Congress passed the Sundry Civil Bill with a proviso: a Joint Commission should be appointed to investigate “the present organizations of the Signal Service, Geological Survey, Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department, with the view to secure greater efficiency and economy of administration of the public service in said Bureaus.”5 That investigation was in part the work of Senators and Congressmen who, looking at Powell, had begun to ask themselves on what meat doth this our Caesar feed. In part it was a continuation of the 1874 and 1878 wrangles about the propriety of government in scientific research. Again, as in 1878, the National Academy was asked to submit a report, and again, as in 1878, Powell asked Marsh for permission to address the Academy’s wise men. The value of his carefully nurtured connections, and his persuasiveness before committees, should again have paid off with a report entirely to his own liking.

In the event, it did not quite work out that way. The Academy’s committee heard Major Powell, but he had barely begun to outline his notions of how the government should organize its scientific bureaus when he was stricken with a recurrence of the iritis he had been suffering from, and had to be led back to his darkened room. The Committee later submitted a report with which Powell did not entirely agree, and in December the Joint Commission opened its hearings.

If it thought that it could really report to Congress by the third Monday in December, 1884, as it had been instructed to, the first days of hearings disillusioned the Joint Commission. It was the end of February, 1886, before it was ready to submit the 1100 pages of testimony it had gathered. When that testimony appeared, Powell occupied more of the 1100 pages than anyone else.

There were a number of questions the three Senators and three Representatives on the Commission wanted to ask Major Powell. Eugene Hale wanted to know how that clause about “continuing the preparation of a geological map of the United States” had got into the Sundry Civil Bill in 1882. Why Senator, Powell said, everyone understood about that. It was thoroughly discussed in terms of its implications for the extension of the Survey before it was passed. But not everybody had understood; a good many Congressmen understood now, some of them angrily, but they hadn’t all understood then. And Hale, a member of the Appropriations Committee that permitted the clause to be written in, quite evidently had not understood it. Also, how about that word “continue” — an obviously deceptive word? Oh, that, Major Powell said. The Survey was already making topographical and geological maps in the Territories and the Public Lands states. This clause gave it the authority to continue the same work in the rest of the country.

Hale did not press the questioning too far; he was friendly enough, and so, in the main, were Chairman Allison of Iowa and the rest of the Commission. They gave Powell every courtesy, as if they were indeed a fact-finding committee and Powell was indeed their chief scientific informant. He explained to them why the Land Office Surveys, made without reference to geodetic points, sometimes out of line with the true meridians and parallels, and without topography, were useless for anything but land parceling. They sniffed for illegitimacies around his arrangement with Massachusetts and New Jersey whereby the states paid part of the expenses of the survey and placed the conduct of the work in the hands of Major Powell. There was a technical illegitimacy, all right; Powell was as usual crowding the limits of his authority and assuming a function not specifically allowed him by law. Yet there was nothing venal about this arrangement; it was obviously mutually beneficial; it demonstrated a laudable co-operativeness between state and federal agencies; it cost the general government nothing; it produced a better map. They passed that question and went on.

They listened with attention while Powell read the statement he had prepared for the Academy on the organization of the scientific bureaus. The Academy in its report to the Commission had proposed a new cabinet Department of Science. Powell, fearing any mingling of military and civilian bureaus, proposed instead that all the “informational” bureaus — Geological Survey, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Signal Service, Fish Commission, Hydrographic Bureau, National Observatory, and National Museum — which was already there — be put under the directorship of the regents of the Smithsonian. That was where he himself had best liked to be; that was where the political winds blew least; that was, in fact, perhaps the best place that could have been suggested. But to put the bureaus there would take power from political or military hands and put it in hands that were scientific and perhaps even disinterested. Apparently no one seriously considered Powell’s plan. As for the Academy’s suggested Department of Science, that was opposed not only by Powell but by the Coast Survey, the Secretary of the Navy, and everyone else concerned.

Jealousies among bureaus cropped up: Though Powell went out of his way to credit the geodetic work of the Coast Survey, Coast Survey witnesses ungratefully doubted the worth of Powell’s topography, and that too was an echo of the old debates of 1874 and 1878. The Academy-Powell plan of 1878 had recommended that the triangulation and topographical mapping of the continent be turned over to the Coast Survey, and perhaps by that concession Powell had for the time blunted the antagonism of General Patterson, the Superintendent. But now the Coast Survey was looking to the future. The survey of the coasts was nine tenths completed, and the principal work remaining concerned the belts of triangulation across the country by which the Coast Survey was meticulously working out the problem of the shape of the earth. These were a valuable preliminary to topographical mapping, as Powell admitted. The Coast Survey, fearing dissolution when the coasts were charted, would clearly welcome the authority to map the entire continent by its slow, careful, and expensive methods, and its witnesses therefore attacked Powell’s maps as inaccurate. Powell replied, without heat, that when the width of a line on a map represented in itself a thousand feet or more, an error of a few feet was not vital, and could not even be shown. His triangulation, much faster and much cheaper, was accurate enough for mapping, though admittedly not for geodesy.

He was a sound, agile, and effective witness. Questions about the conduct of his own two bureaus he answered directly, frankly, and in great detail. He produced all his books and business forms, vouchers, receipts, regulations, and it was clear that his departments ran like fine watches and that in spite of his cunning status as special disbursement officer and his freedom from Congressional supervision in budget matters, he could account for every penny he spent. He went into his special arrangements with universities and with professors such as Marsh, and demonstrated that, as in his collaboration with the states, the scientific work of his bureaus gained by the relationship. He defended government science in all fields where the problems were too large for individuals or for private institutions, but he warned against the politically ambitious: “Whenever the scientific works of the General Government fall out of the control of scientific men, and into the hands of officers or functionaries whose interest is not in all research, but only in official position and dignity, such a political institution for the political advancement of science at once becomes severed from the great body of scientific men; it no longer takes a proper part in the great work to be done, and it speedily decays in influence and value,”6

He justified his appointments, his co-operation with states and universities, his publications, his maps, his expenditures, and he did so with confidence and dash. His handling of the Commission was like a skilled muleskinner’s handling of a twenty-mule team. He thanked it for the chance to answer its questions. Blandly assuming that the Commission was after facts and not anyone’s scalp, he thanked it especially for the questions that he might have thought embarrassing. He pointed out that the changes made in the organization of government science in 1879 had had important results, and he asked for more: “If the work thus begun can be continued through the labors of this Commission, and all of the scientific operations of the Government placed under efficient and proper control, scientific research will be established in America upon such a basis that the best and greatest results will accrue therefrom. The harvest that comes from well-directed and thorough scientific research has no fleeting value, but abides through the years, as the greatest agency for the welfare of mankind.” 7

He could talk that way because he believed that way, and because the hearing gave him a chance to be a scientific missionary to Congress and the public. But there were those who thought the Joint Commission had been formed to smell out pollution rather than find facts, and who did their best to bring up old shoes and bits of clothing and other spoor to help the bloodhounds on the trail. In the midst of the hearings, in October, 1885, Fred Endlich, evidently on the suggestion of Cope, wrote letters to Holmes, Gannett, and A. C. Peale, all ex-Hayden men on Powell’s staff. The one to Gannett was the model for the others:

Dear Gannett —

I presume you are aware of the fact that the Powell Survey is going to the wall. I have been called upon for certain information which I cannot just now get without calling on my friends. I want to know all about the deadheads on the survey, favoritism, misapplication of funds, waste of money, &c. If you are in the position to give me the information, I shall be very much obliged, and will remember it in the sweet by and by. Your name will not appear in any way, and I will ask you to keep this letter quiet....8

Unfortunately for the industrious Endlich, all three correspondents turned his letters over to Powell, so that Endlich and Cope had to scrape up their gossip from less authoritative sources. But they scraped it up. Before long it began to be known that a 23,000 word document blasting Powell was circulating among members of Congress, and in the December 19 meeting Representative Hilary Herbert of Alabama, the one definitely unfriendly member of the Joint Commission, had new and ugly questions to ask.

Was it true that not a single sheet of the map Powell had been working on for three years had been printed? Yes, it was true; none had been printed, though thirteen sheets had been engraved.9 Was it true that King, Wheeler, and the United States Geological Survey had all published voluminously on the Comstock Lode, and was it true that one of those books was not a scientific work at all but a history of the lode’s discovery? And was it the province of a scientific bureau of government to publish the history of accidental discoveries, and was there anything in all that work on the Comstock that a private individual or corporation could not have done? Yes, and yes, and no, and yes. Under Herbert’s grilling Powell had to admit that Elliott Lord’s history of the Comstock, authorized by King, was a book he himself would not have undertaken. But he defended the extensive Comstock studies, he defended his own announced plan to send G. F. Becker to Spain to study quicksilver mines there, and he said that since it appeared outside his authority to send him with Geological Survey funds, he would ask the Smithsonian to send him. Well; how did he justify Dutton’s being sent to Hawaii to study volcanoes? Did that have anything to do with a geological survey of the United States? No, sir, it did not. He had checked with the Secretary of the Treasury, found that he would not be authorized in sending Dutton with Geological Survey funds, and persuaded the Smithsonian to pay his expenses.

With the exception of the Lord book, which he could not defend, he parried Herbert’s grilling, but the malice of Cope reached beyond Herbert, and threatened him scientifically as well as politically. Shortly after receiving the Cope charges, Herbert wrote to Alexander Agassiz, who as the son of the revered Louis and as one of the world’s great marine biologists had the highest standing in scientific circles. Herbert asked for information favorable to the Coast Survey — Agassiz had worked closely with the Coast Survey and had published much of his work out of specimens collected on Coast Survey expeditions. But Herbert added that if the Geological Survey couldn’t be confined it ought to be junked, and requested specific criticisms of Powell’s topographical work, of the excessive Comstock coverage, anything else. Agassiz replied promptly and in a way to please Powell’s enemies: 10 He disapproved of government science (but he went into detail about the valuable contributions of the Coast Survey in geodesy, topography, and zoology). He dutifully disapproved of the work of King and Powell on the Comstock, and thought private individuals had learned nothing from the reports. He thought that economic geology should be left to the mining companies, paleontology to the universities and private individuals. He saw no reason why scientists should ask more of the government than literary men or artists or any of the other learned professions. He thought the publications of the government bureaus wasteful and extravagant. And though he granted that it was impossible to make a geological map without a good topographical map as a base, he felt that the failure of the states to authorize topographical maps meant that they didn’t want the general government to go to that expense for them.

And that, because it came from Agassiz, demanded an answer. Just why it came from Agassiz at all, why the man whom Henry Adams admired next to Clarence King should not only allow himself to be used by an anti-intellectual States’ rights politician but should in the act criticize the work of his friend and business partner King, is not so clear. Perhaps Agassiz’s close affiliation with the Coast Survey is enough explanation. Perhaps too he had already begun to cool off on Clarence King, perhaps he and Higginson had already begun to smell the rats in the London office which King ran but rarely entered, and perhaps the near-collapse of the company that Agassiz’s and Higginson’s personal investigation would bring on within a year was already becoming an unpleasant possibility.11 Or perhaps, as Powell suggested, Agassiz as a very rich man did not understand the difficulties that individual scientists without wealth encountered in following their research, and perhaps his grandiose plan for making his own museum at Harvard a center of American research was threatened by the swift expansion of government science. In any case his was too influential a voice to be ignored. As his last act before the Joint Commission Powell wrote a long and careful letter answering Agassiz’s general criticism.12

He had one central question to ask of Agassiz and those who honestly held Agassiz’s views: Was knowledge the private possession of an élite, or was it something broader? “Shall the work of scientific research and the progress of American civilization wait until the contagion of [Agassiz‘s] example shall inspire a hundred millionaires to engage in like good works? Before that time comes scientific research will be well endowed by the people of the United States in the exercise of their wisdom and in the confident belief that knowledge is for the welfare of all the people.” And to the view that the government might monopolize scientific work there was only one answer. “The learning of one man does not subtract from the learning of another, as if there were a limited quantity to be divided into exclusive holdings; so discovery by one man does not inhibit discovery by another.... That which one man gains by discovery is a gain of other men. And these multiple gains become invested capital, the interest on which is all paid to every owner, and the revenue of new discovery is boundless. It may be wrong to take another man’s purse, but it is always right to take another man’s knowledge, and it is the highest virtue to promote another man’s investigation... ”

That was the true crux of the hearings before the Joint Commission. At stake was Powell’s concept of government science in areas where private initiative or private capital could not operate, the concept of publicly-supported science for the general welfare. Powell believed that such public science, far from robbing or suppressing private research, could by its centrality stimulate and encourage individuals, universities, or local governments, and on occasion could collaborate with them to their mutual benefit. Opposed to him was the notion of private property in science, the notion of Cope and Marsh and to a degree Agassiz, rich men all with a proprietary feeling for their specialities. The proprietary sense was so developed in Cope and Marsh that they snarled and fought over every bleached bone, every note in a learned journal. It was somewhat unfortunate that Powell was allied with Marsh, for he was certain sooner or later to have his flank exposed by Marsh’s intemperate feuds. But for the time being, at least, and thanks mainly to the quality of Powell’s testimony, government science and especially the Geological Survey came out of the Commission’s hearings in 1886 very much strengthened. The Coast Survey took a moderate thumping. The charges circulated by Cope and Endlich were not read into the record of the testimony, and the spies and whisperers slipped back behind the arras to await another chance. For a little while, at least, Major Powell would have the opportunity, relatively unhampered, to cultivate his “highest virtue.”

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