6. Coup de Grâce

A SUCCESS which left Powell still in possession of power was unsatisfactory to Senator Stewart. Completely incapable of understanding either the scope or the meaning of Powell’s General Plan, he could have no notion of the damage he had done his enemy by restricting the Irrigation Survey to a little topography west of the 100th meridian. He would not rest until he damaged him a great deal more.

With the Irrigation Survey pulled down, he turned his attention to the Geological Survey, which, created by the kind of law that was jammed through in the frantic last days and nights of a session, was vulnerable to the same tactics in reverse. Much might be made of the fact that Powell’s budget was not itemized. In some instances, simply to forestall criticism, he had designated specific sums for specific purposes, but his general immunity from Congressional control was complete. His budgets showed no knobs or irregularities that could be whittled off by the watchdogs of the Treasury. And the spies and whisperers had made much of his arbitrary powers without producing any change, principally because Powell’s personal integrity was as unquestioned as the efficiency of his book-keeping. But his freedom of expenditure could be made to look bad: the malice of the Cope crowd and the persistent hatred of Stewart could work at that structural weakness like ice at a crack in a wall.

In 1891 the Stewart forces hung on relentlessly until they turned back the steady curve of appropriation increase for the Survey. The cut of $90,000 that they succeeded in getting 1 was the first reduction Powell had suffered since his fight for survival in 1877. But more alarming than the reduced budget was the fact that this appropriation designated specific salaries and allocated specific sums to different branches of the bureau.

That was more than ominous; it amounted to a vote of no-confidence. It meant that the whispers about the scientific Tammany had found hearers; that Powell’s power, even though no one had ever proved it abused, troubled more and more Congressmen; and that his indefatigable enemies were starting to weaken the front of support on which he had been able to count through the years.

Since 1878, when Representative Patterson of Colorado had thundered denunciations of “this revolutionist,” there had always been an opposition to the Survey in Congress, and the opposition had from time to time distinguished itself for bombast and ignorance and bad faith. It had been anti-science, anti-control, anti-reform. To it, planning was insufferable, intelligence an insult to free Americans. “Do not shackle us with this folly,” Patterson had bellowed in the debate over the National Academy’s proposals in 1878. “Allow the people of the West... that scope and opportunity which our present wise system of land laws afford and in a few years you will have peopling the vast interior of our country as numerous, thrifty, enterprising, patriotic, and happy a population as is now the boast of the most powerful states of the Union.” 2

Since then, some towns in Kansas and even in Patterson’s own state of Colorado had been settled and abandoned as much as three times. The wise system of land laws had marched the West swiftly and directly toward homesteader failure and land and water monopoly by corporations and individuals. The farming population of those plains where the Pattersons and the Gilpins saw visions, and where settlers dug for firewood and drilled for the dependable artesian water, was already defeated by conditions that the Pattersons and the Gilpins would never admit. There would be fewer of Patterson’s thrifty, enterprising, and happy farmers in large parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas in 1940 than there were in the peak year of 1890.3

Now in 1892 Patterson was long gone, and with him Page of California, Maginnis of Montana, Haskell of Kansas, Dunnell of Minnesota, and other tub-thumpers of homestead settlement. Gone were some of those who had suspiciously sniffed at the heels of government science in 1885. But Congressmen often have a long life, and some, like Jukeses, leave worthy successors. In 1892 Hilary Herbert was still in the House, Wolcott and Stewart and Power and Carey still in the Senate. Their grievances differed but their object was the same: to get Powell.

Again, as in the newspaper attack of January, 1890, it was Marsh whose flank was turned to expose Powell’s position. This time the group which was opposed to government science and was hunting a way to reduce Powell’s size discovered that the Geological Survey had published a study by Marsh on the Odontornithes, or Toothed Birds.4 A man whose reputation had been gained and kept by shaving and denying and cutting things in budgets, Representative Herbert could grow as caustic about birds with teeth as he had about Elliot Lord’s history of the Comstock or Powell’s frivolous addiction to topography. Representative Wilson of Washington was picked to introduce the ridicule of the toothed-birds book into the House. Herbert then expanded that opening into a full public airing of all the whispers and slanders of 1890, 1885, 1878-79, 1874, and all the years between.5 It may have been significant that Eugene Smith, the State Geologist of Herbert’s state of Alabama, was one of Cope’s crowd.6 At any rate, Cope and Endlich were dragged out and dusted off, Agassiz found his letters against government science read again into the record. The topographical atlas of the United States on which Powell had spent close to half of the six millions he had received in appropriations over the past thirteen years was pawed over and revealed to be only half completed.

There was no end to any of it, they cried. It was all a gigantic scheme to perpetuate in power and plush the director and his henchmen. His “scheme of geology,” Herbert said, was “the most ambitious ever conceived by the human mind” — and he was not far wrong. If geology conceived on that scale was a fit concern of government, why did we not expand into physics, chemistry, biology? (By now we have, and to a degree that would appall Mr. Herbert.) Multiplying researches, topographical maps that never got done, birds with teeth, waste, expense, featherbedding — Herbert made his charges aggressively and in detail, and every charge he made found supporters who hated Powell, supporters who feared government sponsorship of science, supporters scared of government control of irrigation, supporters who were simply economy-minded. Herbert said with horror what Powell would have said with pride: that the United States government spent more in promoting science than any other nation in the world.

The General Plan was a whole; since Stewart had managed to knock off one of its comers in 1890, it was only a question of time until the whole structure was brought down. Herbert and his cohorts brought it down in 1892. Admitting that the only way they could get at Powell was through the “pure science” branches of his immune bureau, Senator Wolcott of Colorado joined with Herbert, Wilson, and others in the House in a concerted attack. Herbert moved the eliminination of paleontology from the bureau and the appropriation — a move that paralleled the earlier action of the California legislature in destroying the Whitney Survey when Clarence King, fresh out of Yale, was one of its surveyors. Moved by the same arguments of impracticality, the House Appropriations Committee cut the budget. Powell’s supporters rallied in the Senate Appropriations Committee and restored everything the House committee had cut. When the bill came before the Senate, Wolcott proposed an amendment cutting the appropriation from $541,000 to $400,000. Powell’s supporters defeated him. But the Westerners who were after Powell’s hair did a little horse trading with the South, and got through by a vote of 26 to 23 Senator Carey’s amendment cutting the sum even more, to $335,000. That amendment also specified the size and salaries of the staff: two geologists at $4000, one at $3000, one at $2700, two paleontologists at $2000, and so on. A desperate sortie by Powell forces lifted the total sum to $430,000, but lost the two paleontologists and fourteen other staff jobs.7

That brought the house down, and with it much of the structure of government science that Powell had labored with for more than twenty years. All of the scientific bureaus felt Herbert’s axe; even the Smithsonian suffered. And when the temple came down the High Priest of Science was in it, a maimed man, in constant pain from the regenerated nerves of his stump, a man getting on toward sixty and in trouble with a wife who over the years had grown into something of a shrew. He was tired and he was licked. Curtly, almost insultingly, he fired Marsh, reduced his staff, cut down his work to the topography which was almost all they had left him, and subsided. After a decent interval of two years he would retire and pass his Geological Survey on to Charles D. Walcott, who impressed him as the member of his staff most likely to bear up under the wear and tear of fighting the bureau’s battles in Congress.

For himself, he was done. The whisperers and spies could subside, and the Senatorial warriors could stop striking the body, the medicine men could resume the chanting that denied the West’s ills or would cure them with invocations of the Jeffersonian gods or the artesian waters.

But one more repudiation awaited him before the gulf between intelligence and wishfulness, fact and fable, would be ultimately clear. It came in October, 1893, when Powell was invited to address the International Irrigation Congress meeting in Los Angeles. The Congress was Powell’s natural ally. It had been born out of the same flurry of public alarm that had created his Irrigation Survey, and its purpose was to make a million forty-acre farms by means of vast irrigation works throughout the West. It represented one form of public response to the persistent drouth of the late eighties and early nineties, and to the extent that it was a spontaneous uprising of citizens determined to do for themselves what neither private companies nor government seemed able or willing to do,8 it matched perfectly with the democratic and co-operative bias of Powell’s thought.9 Through numbers and persistence and pressure upon political representatives it might be able to inaugurate some such program as Powell himself had suggested, and might rescue some if not all of the reclamation aspects of his General Plan.

But when he got to Los Angeles Powell found the delegates talking as if the whole billion acres of the remaining public domain could be irrigated, as if the whole West could be reclaimed. The ancient myth of the Garden of the World, dimmed by drouth and hot wind and dust storms, came back green and lush at the first irrigation of hope. It was not a program that the delegates backed, but an illusion, the unchastened illusion of William Gilpin. This was close to the irrigation which was as simple as fencing, and these acres now parched and dusty wasteland or skimpy range were to be the future homes of more people than had thronged the Roman Empire under the Antonines.

Major Powell put aside his planned speech and told them that they were mad. The highest percentage of reclaimable land that he had ever ventured, in the first flush of his Irrigation Survey optimism, had been twenty per cent. His more confirmed guess now was around 100,000,000 acres, about twelve per cent of the 850,- 000,000 acres still remaining in federal hands. He knew the limitations of artesian waters, his engineers had measured the capacity of the streams. “I tell you gentlemen,” he said into their heckling and the rising clamor of their indignation, “you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

He told them, and they booed him.10

So a transition in society had been attempted and — at least as a unit and for the time being — had failed. Science had gone down before credulity, superstition, habit. And in a curious way the conqueror of scientific planning was not only ignorance and credulity and a crowd of stupid and venal Senators and Representatives, but that very Republickism by which according to Powell’s faith the will of the people was delegated to its responsible representatives. At the time when they whipped him, the anti-planning, anti-science people in Congress were more representative of American and especially of Western thinking than Powell was.

It might have seemed by 1893 that every sort of education led to failure. Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, born to public responsibility and high intellectual and ethical effort, trained in diplomacy, in journalism, in history, in social intercourse, companion and friend of his country’s best and brightest, felt a decade later that 1893 showed them all how little education mattered. William C. Whitney, one of those who “owed their free hand to marriage, education serving only for ornament,” seemed to Adams typical of what the world called successful. “Already in 1893 Whitney had finished with politics after having gratified every ambition, and swung the country almost at his will; he had thrown away the usual objects of political ambition like the ashes of smoked cigarettes; had turned to other amusements, satiated every taste, gorged every appetite, won every object that New York afforded, and, not yet satisfied, had carried his field of activity abroad, until New York no longer knew what most to envy, his horses or his houses.” “ ... Clarence King, whose education was exactly suited to theory, had failed; and Whitney, who was not better educated than Adams, had achieved phenomenal success.”

Allow for Adams’ persistent and not always honest negativism; still the spectacle of Clarence King’s failure was impressive. His fortune, once close to a million, had been dissipated in years of indulgence abroad and annihilated in the Panic of 1893. His art collection was mortgaged to his friend John Hay, who accepted it as security for his loans not so much because he wanted any security as because of a wish not to hurt King’s pride. King himself, leaving behind him a clandestine Negro wife and five unacknowledged children, one of them defective, in an obscure Brooklyn street, was in the Bloomingdale Asylum, victim of a complete breakdown.

But it was not his education that had brought King there, nor outrageous ill fortune. What had brought him there was a lack of what Adams himself conspicuously possessed: character. Though Adams’ life had been, as he said, snapped in two with his wife’s suicide in December, 1885, yet he had grimly, almost as a memorial to that happiest of marriages, finished the nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, and completed their publication in 1891. They put a period to that section of his life; he thought of himself as finished and cut adrift. But the twenty-seven long, lonely, wandering years that followed proved, almost against his will and in the teeth of his insistent pessimism, more productive of humanly valuable observation and thinking and writing than the whole lifetimes of any but the best. What he called failure and retirement would have triumphantly justified the lives of most men.

Something similar can be said of Powell. A period of his life too came to an end with his defeat by Stewart and the others in 1890 and again in 1892; his hope to accomplish a major work in the West was killed. His education, incomparable for the jobs he had set himself, seemed to have failed the most important test. In 1894, while Adams was chaperoning the convalescent and restless King in Cuba, Powell was withdrawing from his former position of power and settling into the relative obscurity of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He wore the scars of two dozen years in Washington. But he was not defeated and damned as Clarence King was; and with as much unexpended intellectual vigor left as Adams himself possessed, he had less cause to mask it behind an apparent ennui and bitterness. He was never touched in the slightest by the cynicism that tinged all of Adams’ long later life.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!