Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.


19 thoughts on “Dollars and Sense

  1. Hugh, it reminds me of the University of Toronto/ University of California – Berkeley study that revealed a surprising result through a variety of tests. People with more wealth tended to cheat on these tests twice as much as people who had less. The tests ranged from yielding in traffic, eating cookies they were told were left for a kids meeting afterwards, not correcting when they got more change from a transaction, a fixed monopoly game, etc.


  2. Interesting post. Allow me to look at the issue from a slightly different point of view.

    The Civil War was fought over slavery. Fortunately, the right side won in that regard. However, an issue that was a close second at the time was states’ rights. As a result of the Civil War, the way was opened for a larger, more influential, federal government. Thus the seeds were planted for the progressive welfare state that we are familiar with today.

    One of the activities that the federal government was involved in after the war was the railroad. It is interesting to read the story of Thomas Durant. Durant is an historical figure who was also a main character in the AMC series “Hell on Wheels”. Durant epitomized Twain’s quote “get money honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.” While he did make some money honestly, much of his fortune was derived from taking advantage of the largesse of the government. In fact, he was able to get away with much of what he did because he made sure that the political leadership, including President James Garfield, received a share of his profits.

    People haven’t changed. They have always pursued wealth through means legal and illegal. I think immoral pursuit of wealth has been more prevalent since the Civil War because the growth of governments worldwide has created more opportunities. Isn’t it easier to morally justify stealing from the government than stealing from your neighbor? Maybe wealthy people support a larger government because it provides more opportunities for them to enrich themselves.

    Food for thought.

    • Interesting food. Thanks for the perspective. I doubt, however, that a smaller government would make people any the less avaricious. It would simply remove some of the restraints that have been put in place to temper the greed that leads the few to amass great wealth. In the end, it is the love of money that is at the heart of the beast — regardless of the form of government.

  3. Y’know … it is easy to see the inverse relationship between wealth and morals. Likely it is both the sense of entitlement the money brings, but also the ‘exclusion’ or protection … the cocoon that wealth weaves around its owner. The very wealthy can no longer see those who are homeless, sick or starving, for their windows are tinted and their chauffeurs instructed to avoid those parts of town. But … my question is this: why, then, are there exceptions? Why are, say, Bill Gates and Donald Trump or Scott Pruitt worlds apart, one a true philanthropist, the other naught but a greedy bully? What is it that allows some to gain wealth without sacrificing their conscience, their humanitarian values? Good post … as always, you make me think. Owwww!!! 😉

    • We know that every generalization allows of exceptions. (Even that one!) There are people of wealth who have a conscience. But they are the exception, I would say.

      • True … but I just have this desire to figure out what is different with those exceptions. What makes every 1 in 500 act differently? If we knew that, we might have the key to making this world a better place, yes? However, I am not an anthropologist, so all I can do is speculate. But even that is sometimes fun and enlightening in itself. Better to spend my time thinking of things like this than watching Duck Dynasty, yes? 😉

      • Just to speculate along with you: might it not go back to “character” that is formed in the young — or use to be? That 1 in 500 might have been raised properly to have some sensitivity to the pain of others. No?

  4. What seperates Gates from Trump,if they are seperated at all, is, I think, appearance. Gates wanted to appear to be a charitable person, while Trump doesn’t give a damn about appearances. Now, this I am about to say is pure opinion and speculation, but for as much as Gates gave away, and Trump did not give away, neither man threatened their own wealth by doing what each chose to do. A poor man, with only one shirt, would give away that shirt to someone if they needed it more than he, despite its great value to him. Gates never gave away that much. He always kept plenty more in reserve. Such is the way with most philanthropists. It costs them nothing to be generous, though it gets them a lot of adulation. Even were a billionaire to give away 3/4 of their fortune, they would still not be hurting for anything. In my mind, a true philanthropist gives away his wealth until he himself is hurting, but few are that generous. Until all people are that generous, we are a sick society.

    • It is certainly true that the billionaires could give away millions and still have more than they could ever need. But one must wonder why so many of them simply seem determined to have more….and more. It appears (from the outside) to be a compulsion.

  5. Terrific post, Hugh. In addition to the morality concerns that come with wealth, and the often-heartless pursuit of great wealth, is the way the wealthy become blinded to the reality the rest of us live in. That never ends up well. There have been almost too many revolutions or would-be revolutions to count that were driven by disparities in income, opportunity and power.
    jdgasper’s points about the wealthy supporting bigger government because it gives them more opportunities to enrich themselves is interesting, but there are also numerous examples to the contrary, at least in the U.S. The very wealthy often get richer when they can reduce government’s impact, especially by removing regulations over coal and oil pollution (which is happening under Scott Pruitt’s EPA), or over banking/high finance, and, recently, the new tax bill.

    End of the day, as you wrote, it’s just the love of money. Which is the root …

    • ….of evil. Thanks for the perspective, Dana. And you are absolutely right: small government means fewer restrictions on those who would accumulate as much wealth as possible. I honestly don’t see that large government creates opportunities for the rich to get richer.
      One thinks of the French just prior to the Revolution when the wealthy refused to pay their share and eventually the resentment built until it reached the boiling point. The wealthy often think poverty is deserved because those who are poor are simply lazy or unmotivated. As you say, there is a compete lack of sympathy and understanding there. I had a former student whose father was very rich and who bailed the young man out twice before he made it rich. I knew him later and he was insistent that he had made it “on his own.” Strange mentality…

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