2. The Corkscrew Path of Progress

EVEN ADAMS, disillusioned and sad over the death of John Hay, thought he saw some signs of the new man, the counter-force, when he returned to New York from Europe in 1904. Theodore Roosevelt was busily busting trusts with the only corporate instrument big enough to deal with them: government. A little later he would be applying through that same corporate instrument a good many checks to the greed that was gobbling the West. Behind him would be Gifford Pinchot with a coherent plan of conservation and a bureaucratic aggressiveness and daring even greater than Powell’s. Behind Pinchot would be Powell’s friend and one-time employee, W J McGee, “the brains of the conservation movement,” and these three — Roosevelt, Pinchot, and McGee — would so effectively sell the conservation idea in all its manifold shapes to the American people that the Conservation Congress in 1907 may be taken as the end and the beginning of an era.

But behind W J McGee, and behind most of the ideas which he brought to the conservation movement and which were embodied in legislation and in public opinion through the practical genius of Pinchot and Roosevelt, was a little man with wild whiskers and one arm. The program that the Conservation Congress accepted and adopted and fought for was essentially Powell’s “General Plan” of 1878, amplified and particularized to fit a later generation’s knowledge and needs.

In the doctrines of evolution and of progress Henry Adams came to have no faith at all. Science’s attempts at the larger synthesis, he felt, brought us no closer to the discovery or recognition of that Unity which was man’s whole object of search on earth. The larger synthesis was bounded by the limits of the senses and the sense-extending instruments, by the inadequacies of observation and experiment; and beyond even the larger synthesis lay the “supersensual chaos” which asserted not Unity but Multiplicity as the law of Nature. Radium denied its gods; matter was motion, motion matter, and the kinetic theory of gas, which seemed as sure a starting point as any for the philosopher of matter and force and hence of history, merely underlined the implications of chaos. “In plain words, Chaos Was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” 21

Like Adams, Powell built his philosophy upward from the kinetic theory of gas, and like Adams he made no scruple about applying laws of physics, by analogy, to the study of history. Like Adams, again, he inevitably chose to apply those laws of physics which corroborated his own ingrained beliefs, his temperamental and perhaps ultimately regional reactions to phenomena and events. Adams, product of a class and a region whose importance was fading, might have been expected to fall upon the second law of thermodynamics, with its demonstrations of the dissipation of energy, and make it a metaphor for the world and for man, a parable of the decay of civilizations. Powell accepted the jar and collision of molecules in every scrap of matter, but he seems to have accepted without question also a second motion, a forward thrust which was social, evolutionary, human, rather than physical, and which was in keeping with the West’s incurable optimism. The supersensual chaos did not tempt him; in spite of his wild addiction to abstraction, he was a practical man, a doer, a pragmatic manipulator of forces. For Adams, evolution in its social and economic aspects was illusory; for Powell, it was merely incomplete. For Adams, matter was motion, and motion was energy which could be used up; for Powell, motion was perpetual, the binding principle of the universe.

“Even Newton,” Powell wrote in Truth and Error, “thought light to be corpuscular. The doctrine that motion as speed emanates from one body as a substance or substrate and passes to another, comes from this source. This relic of ancient philosophy clings to much of modern physics, and is the foundation of a body of speculation in which scientific men indulge when they theorize about the dissipation of motion, the exhaustion of the heat of the sun, and the general running down of the solar system into a state in which life will be impossible.” 22

Scientific men or historical gentlemen. For physics or for history the error was the same, Powell would have said. The speed of any particle of matter, molecular or molar or stellar, was constant, and if one reduced everything to force or motion as Adams did, then the speed of a thought was likewise constant. So was collision constant, and collision neither accelerated nor decelerated the particles ; it only deflected them. Ideas, institutions, human society too, viewed in long perspective, neither heated nor cooled off, went faster or slower. They only changed direction, and the large, river-like forward movement of evolution contained all smaller motions and deviations, and swept them ahead as a river sweeps its eddies and currents. If choice was a property of even the smallest particle of matter, and he believed it was, there was no reason to believe that choice was not also a property of the largest units, of the universe itself. Powell was an evolutionist in every cell. He never despaired, apparently, of that final Perfection that to Adams was a mirage, and he was sure of the method that must be used to find it: experimental science.

Nevertheless, he could not have believed that the world marched toward Perfection by a series of regular and predictable steps. Though he repudiated Herbert Spencer and his accidental, laissez faire evolution of society, he was not so naive as to believe that a social motion such as John Wesley Powell, a particle possessing both energy and choice, could move toward its willed goal like a bullet shot out of a gun. Collision was as certain a law of nature as motion, and the product of collision was deflection.

In practical terms, over a span of seventy-five years and within the dynamics of the expanding West, Powell’s law of deflection could hardly have been better demonstrated. Social and economic forces have not faded, nor have they accelerated beyond the strength of the machine, as Adams sometimes thought they might. The human race has not yet blown itself off the planet, though it has made a good try. Instead of expending itself or running out, force has begotten new force. And even the ideas, even the characteristic personalities, that collided in Powell’s time still are present, and still collide.

In seventy-five years, the program that Big Bill Stewart thought he had utterly defeated in 1890 and 1892 has collided with the private greeds of the Stewarts and the myths of the Gilpins to such purpose that Western economics, Western institutions, even Western character, have been bent and changed. Powell’s program itself has been bent; it has had to swerve and sometimes backtrack; it has succeeded only partially, or in changed proportions; its motion has sometimes whirled around a vortex of failure. But it persists, and moves. So do the Stewarts and the Gilpins. Lieutenant Wheeler and the Corps of Engineers are still present, though slightly changed; Senator Stewart is born again, with slight modifications, in Senator McCarran. The objections of an Alexander Agassiz have their parallels, the Gilpins are not dead.

Order is the dream of man. It was the dream of John Wesley Powell more than of most, and he never questioned that an order could be discovered, or perhaps to some degree created, by the human mind and the scientific method. The larger syntheses that he attempted in several areas — in the mapping of the continent, in the organization of the Science of Man, in the history of intellec tion, in the planning for the settlement of the arid West — turned out to be always working syntheses only, sure to be periodically discarded and replaced.

Even so, he would probably have said that the energy of the colliding particles was constant. Even so, he would have said that despite temporary defeats, and shocks that rattled a social mover to his ultimate particle, the large motion was always, like that of a comet — or a glacier — forward.

Even with his apparent defeats, he would have had to count his efforts successful. When he died in Haven, Maine, on September 23, 1902, he did not die as Clarence King did, penniless and alone in an Arizona hotel, still chasing a rainbow with dollar signs on it, and leaving behind him a record of such waste and loss of magnificent energies as might have corroborated Henry Adams’ theory of history. Powell died with at least one evidence of the persistence of his ideas: the session of Congress just finished had passed the Newlands Act putting the United States government in the business of reclaiming the arid region according to principles that Powell himself had first suggested. And it had testified to the persistence of myth, though in changed form, by writing that Act in the interest of the Jeffersonian yeoman and the 160-acre farm-stead. Powell had helped both to preserve and to change that mythical figure, who had come a long way from the form that Representative Patterson or William Gilpin had found him in.

The fate of all leaders who go too far ahead, and of all thinkers who think straighter than their contemporaries, was Powell’s. Attempting to lead his own time in accordance with the principles of order and science that he believed in, he was almost, though not quite, deserted. But from the river bluffs where we have symbolically planted him, looking over the West that was his province, he can perhaps contemplate the truly vortical, corkscrew path of human motion and with some confidence wait for the future to catch up with him.

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