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XVII. Edward Atkinson.

Edward Atkinson, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since March 12, 1879, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on February 10, 1827, and died in Boston on December 11, 1905. He was descended on his father's side from the patriot minute-man, Lieutenant Amos Atkinson, and on the maternal side from Stephen Greenleaf, a well-known fighter of Indians in the colonial period; thus honestly inheriting on both sides that combative spirit in good causes which marked his life. Owing to the business reverses of his father, he was prevented from receiving, as his elder brother, William Parsons Atkinson, had received, a Harvard College education, a training which was also extended to all of Edward Atkinson's sons, at a later day. At fifteen he entered the employment of Read and Chadwick, Commission Merchants, Boston, in the capacity of office boy; but he rapidly rose to the position of book-keeper, and subsequently became connected with several cotton manufacturing companies in Lewiston, Maine, and elsewhere. He was for many years the treasurer of a number of such corporations, and in 1878 [216] became President of the Boston Manufacturers' Mutual Insurance Company. Such business was in a somewhat chaotic state when he took hold of it, but he remained in its charge until his death, having during this time organized, enlarged, and perfected the mutual insurance of industrial concerns. In 1855 he married Miss Mary Caroline Heath, of Brookline, who died in December, 1907. He is survived by seven children,--Mrs. Ernest Winsor, E. W. Atkinson, Charles H. Atkinson, William Atkinson, Robert W. Atkinson, Miss C. P. Atkinson, and Mrs. R. G. Wadsworth.

This gives the mere outline of a life of extraordinary activity and usefulness which well merits a further delineation in detail. Mr. Atkinson's interest in public life began with a vote for Horace Mann in 1848. Twenty years after, speaking at Salem, he described himself as never having been anything else than a Republican; but he was one of those who supported Cleveland for President in 1884, and whose general affinities were with the Democratic party. He opposed with especial vigor what is often called “the imperial policy,” which followed the Cuban War, and he conducted a periodical of his own from time to time, making the most elaborate single battery which the war-party had to encounter.

From an early period of life he was a profuse [217] and vigorous pamphleteer, his first pamphlet being published during the Civil War and entitled “Cheap Cotton by free labor,” and this publication led to his acquaintance with David R. Wells and Charles Nordhoff, thenceforth his life-long friends. His early pamphlets were on the cotton question in different forms (1863-76); he wrote on blockade-running (1865) ; on the Pacific Railway (1871) ; and on mutual fire insurance (1885), this last being based on personal experience as the head of a mutual company. He was also, during his whole life, in print and otherwise, a strong and effective fighter for sound currency.

A large part of his attention from 1889 onward was occupied by experiments in cooking and diet, culminating in an invention of his own called “The Aladdin Oven.” This led him into investigations as to the cost of nutrition in different countries, on which subject he also wrote pamphlets. He soon was led into experiments so daring that he claimed to have proved it possible to cook with it, in open air, a five-course dinner for ten persons, and gave illustrations of this at outdoor entertainments. He claimed that good nutrition could be had for $ per week, and that a family of five, by moderate management, could be comfortably supported on $i 80 per year (Boston Herald, October 8, 1891). These surprising figures unfortunately created among the [218] laboring-class a good deal of sharp criticism, culminating in the mistaken inquiry, why he did not feed his own family at $180 a year, if it was so easy? I can only say for one, that if the meals at that price were like a dinner of which I partook at his own house with an invited party, and at which I went through the promised five courses after seeing them all prepared in the garden, I think that his standard of poverty came very near to luxury.

Mingled with these things in later years was introduced another valuable department of instruction. He was more and more called upon to give addresses, especially on manufactures, before Southern audiences, and there was no disposition to criticise him for his anti-slavery record. Another man could hardly be found whose knowledge of manufacturing and of insurance combined made him so fit to give counsel in the new business impulse showing itself at the South. He wrote much (1877) on cotton goods, called for an international cotton exposition, and gave an address at Atlanta, Georgia, which was printed in Boston in 1881.

Looking now at Atkinson's career with the eyes of a literary man, it seems clear to me that no college training could possibly have added to his power of accumulating knowledge or his wealth in the expression of it. But the [219] academic tradition might have best added to these general statements in each case some simple address or essay which would bring out clearly to the minds of an untrained audience the essential.points of each single theme. Almost everything he left is the talk of a specially trained man to a limited audience, also well trained,--at least in the particular department to which he addresses himself. The men to whom he talks may not know how to read or write, but they are all practically versed in the subjects of which he treats. He talks as a miner to miners, a farmer to farmers, a cook to cooks ; but among all of his papers which I have examined, that in which he appears to the greatest advantage to the general reader is his “Address before the Alumni of Andover Theological Seminary” on June 9, 1886. Here he speaks as one representing a wholly different pursuit from that of his auditors; a layman to clergymen, or those aiming to become so. He says to them frankly at the outset, “I have often thought [at church] that if a member of the congregation could sometimes occupy the pulpit while the minister took his place in the pew, it might be a benefit to both. The duty has been assigned to me to-day to trace out the connection between morality and a true system of political or industrial economy.” [220]

He goes on to remind them that the book which is said to rank next to the Bible toward the benefit of the human race is Adam Smith's “Wealth of nations,” and that the same Adam Smith wrote a book on moral philosophy, which is now but little read. He therefore takes the former of Smith's books, not the latter, as his theme, and thus proceeds:--

I wonder how many among your number ever recall the fact that it has been the richest manufacturers who have clothed the naked at the least cost to them; that it is the great bonanza farmer who now feeds the hungry at the lowest price; that Vanderbilt achieved his great fortune by reducing the cost of moving a barrel of flour a thousand miles,from three dollars and fifty cents to less than seventy cents. This was the great work assigned to him, whether he knew it or not. His fortune was but an incident,--the main object, doubtless, to himself, but a trifling incident compared to what he saved others.

Address before the Alumni of Andover, 1.

He then goes on to show that whatever may be the tricks or wrongs of commerce, they lie on the surface, and that every great success is based upon very simple facts.

The great manufacturer [he says] who guides the operations of a factory of a hundred thousand spindles, in which fifteen hundred men, women, and [221] children earn their daily bread, himself works on a narrow margin of one fourth of a cent on each yard of cloth. If he shall not have applied truth to every branch of construction and of the operation of that factory, it will fail and become worthless; and then with toilsome labor a hundred and fifty thousand women might try to clothe themselves and you, who are now clothed by the service of fifteen hundred only.

Such is the disparity in the use of time, brought into beneficent action by modern manufacturing processes.

The banker who deals in credit by millions upon millions must possess truth of insight, truth of judgment, truth of character. Probity and integrity constitute his capital, for the very reason that the little margin which he seeks to gain for his own service is but the smallest fraction of a per cent upon each transaction. I supervise directly or indirectly the insurance upon four hundred million dollars' worth of factory property. The products of these factories, machine-shops, and other works must be worth six hundred million dollars a year. It is n't worth fifty cents on each hundred dollars to guarantee their notes or obligations, while ninety-nine and one half per cent of all the sales they make will be promptly paid when due.

Address before the Alumni of Andover, 10.

He elsewhere turns from viewing the factory system with business eyes alone to the consideration [222] of it from the point of view of the laborer. There is no want of sympathy, we soon find, in this man of inventions and statistics. He thus goes on:--

The very manner in which this great seething, toiling, crowded mass of laboring men and women bear the hardships of life leads one to faith in humanity and itself gives confidence in the future. If it were not that there is a Divine order even in the hardships which seem so severe, and that even the least religious, in the technical sense, have faith in each other, the anarchist and nihilist might be a cause of dread.

As I walk through the great factories which are insured in the company of which I am president, trying to find out what more can be done to save them from destruction by fire, I wonder if I myself should not strike, just for the sake of variety, if I were a mule-spinner, obliged to bend over the machine, mending the ends of the thread, while I walked ten or fifteen miles a day without raising my eyes to the great light above. I wonder how men and women bear the monotony of the workshop and of the factory, in which the division of labor is carried to its utmost, and in which they must work year in and year out, only on some small part of a fabric or an implement, never becoming capable of making the whole fabric or of constructing the whole machine.

Address to Workingmen in Providence, April I I, 1886, p. 19.


We thus find him quite ready to turn his varied knowledge and his executive power towards schemes for the relief of the operative, schemes of which he left many.

Mr. Atkinson, a year or two later (1890), wrote a similarly popularized statement of social science for an address on “Religion and life” before the American Unitarian Association. In his usual matter-of-fact way, he had prepared himself by inquiring at the headquarters of different religious denominations for a printed creed of each. He first bought an Episcopal creed at the Old Corner Bookstore for two cents, an Orthodox creed at the Congregational Building for the same amount, then a Methodist two-cent creed also, a Baptist creed for five cents, and a Presbyterian one for ten, Unitarian and Universalist creeds being furnished him for nothing; and then he proceeds to give some extracts whose bigotry makes one shudder, and not wonder much that he expressed sympathy mainly with the Catholics and the Jews, rather than with the severer schools among Protestants. And it is already to be noticed how much the tendency of liberal thought, during the last twenty years, has been in the direction whither his sympathies went.

As time went on, he had to undergo the test which awaits all Northern public men visiting [224] the Southern States, but not met by all in so simple and straightforward a way as he. Those who doubt the capacity of the mass of men in our former slave states to listen to plainness of speech should turn with interest to Atkinson's plain talk to the leading men of Atlanta, Georgia, in October, 1880. He says, almost at the beginning: “Now, gentlemen of the South, I am going to use free speech for a purpose and to speak some plain words of truth and soberness to you. . . . I speak, then, to you here and now as a Republican of Republicans, as an Abolitionist of early time, a Free-Soiler of later date, and a Republican of to-day.” And the record is that he was received with applause. He goes on to say as frankly : “When slavery ended, not only were blacks made free from the bondage imposed by others, but whites as well were redeemed by the bondage they had imposed upon themselves. . . . When you study the past system of slave labor with the present system of free labor, irrespective of all personal considerations, you will be mad down to the soles of your boots to think that you ever tolerated it; and when you have come to this wholesome condition of mind, you will wonder how the devil you could have been so slow in seeing it. [Laughter.]”

Then he suddenly drops down to the solid [225] fact and says: “Are you not asking Northern men to come here, and do you not seek Northern capital? If you suppose either will come here unless every man can say what he pleases, as I do now, you are mistaken.” Then he goes on with his speech, rather long as he was apt to make them, but addressing a community much more leisurely than that which he had left at home; filling their minds with statistics, directions, and methods, till at last, recurring to the question of caste and color, he closes fearlessly: “As you convert the darkness of oppression and slavery to liberty and justice, so shall you be judged by men, and by Him who created all the nations of the earth.”

After tracing the course and training of an eminent American at home, it is often interesting to follow him into the new experiences of the foreign traveler. In that very amusing book, “Notes from a Diary,” by Grant Duff (later Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff), the author writes that he came unexpectedly upon a breakfast (June, 1887), the guests being “Atkinson, the New England Free Trader, Colonel Hay, and Frederic Harrison, all of whom were well brought out by our host and talked admirably.” I quote some extracts from the talk:--

Mr. Atkinson said that quite the best after-dinner speech he had ever heard was from Mr. [226] Samuel Longfellow, brother of the poet. An excellent speech had been made by Mr. Longworth, and the proceedings should have closed, when Mr. Longfellow was very tactlessly asked to address the meeting, which he did in the words: ‘It is, I think, well known that worth makes the man, but want of it the fellow,’ and sat down.” After this mild beginning we have records of good talk.

Other subjects [Grant Duff says] were the hostility of the Socialists in London to the Positivists and to the Trades Unions; the great American fortunes and their causes, the rapid melting away of some of them, the hindrance which they are to political success ; and servants in the United States, of whom Atkinson spoke relatively, Colonel Hay absolutely, well, saying that he usually kept his from six to eight years. ...

Atkinson said that all the young thought and ability in America is in favor of free trade, but that free trade has not begun to make any way politically. Harrison remarked that he was unwillingly, but ever more and more, being driven to believe that the residuum was almost entirely composed of people who would not work. Atkinson took the same view, observing that during the war much was said about the misery of the working-women of Boston. He offered admirable terms if they would only go a little way into the country to work in his factory. Forty were at last got together to have the [227] conditions explained--ten agreed to go next morning, of whom one arrived at the station, and she would not go alone!

On another occasion we read in the “Diary” :

We talked of Father Taylor, and he [Atkinson] told us that the great orator once began a sermon by leaning over the pulpit, with his arms folded, and saying, “You people ought to be very good, if you're not, for you live in Paradise already.”

The conversation, in which Sir Louis Malet took part, turned to Mill's economical heresies, especially that which relates to the fostering of infant industries. Atkinson drew a striking picture of the highly primitive economic condition of the South before the war, and said that now factories of all kinds are springing up throughout the country in spite of the keen competition of the North. He cited a piece of advice given to his brother by Theodore Parker, “Never try to lecture down to your audience.” This maxim is in strict accordance with an opinion expressed by Hugh Miller, whom, having to address on the other side of the Firth just the same sort of people as those amongst whom he lived at Cromarty, I took as my guide in this matter during the long period in which I was connected with the Elgin Burghs.

Atkinson went on to relate that at the time of Mr. Hayes's election to the presidency there was great danger of an outbreak, and he sat in council with General Taylor and Abraham Hewitt, doing [228] his best to prevent it. At length he exclaimed: “ Now I think we may fairly say that the war is over. Here are we three acting together for a common object, and who are we? You, Mr. Hewitt, are the leader of the Democratic party in New York; I am an old Abolitionist who subscribed to furnish John Brown and his companions with rifles; you, General Taylor, are the last Confederate officer who surrendered an army, and you surrendered it not because you were willing to do so, but, as you yourself admit, because you could n't help it.”

The publication which will perhaps be much consulted in coming years as the best periodical organ of that party in the nation which was most opposed to the Philippine war will doubtless be the work issued by Mr. Atkinson on his own responsibility and by his own editing, from June 3, 1899, to September, 9000, under the name of “The anti-imperialist.” It makes a solid volume of about 400 octavo pages, and was conducted vholly on Atkinson's own responsibility, financially and otherwise, though a large part of the expense was paid him by volunteers, to the extent of $5,657.87 or more, covering an outlay of $5,870.62, this amount being largely received in sums of one dollar, obtained under what is known as the chain method. For this amount were printed more than 100,000 copies of a series of pamphlets, of which the [229] first two were withdrawn from the mail as seditious under President McKinley's administration. A more complete triumph of personal independence was perhaps never seen in our literature, and it is easy to recognize the triumph it achieved for a high-minded and courageous as well as constitutionally self-willed man. The periodical exerted an influence which lasts to this day, although the rapidity of political change has now thrown it into the background for all except the systematic student of history. It seemed to Mr. Atkinson, at any rate, his crowning work.

The books published by Edward Atkinson were the following: “The distribution of Profits,” 1885; “The industrial progress of the nation,” 1889; “The Margin of profit,” 1890; “Taxation and work,” 1892; “Facts and figures the basis of economic science,” 1894. This last was printed at the Riverside Press, the others being issued by Putnam & Co., New York. He wrote also the following papers in leading periodicals: “Is Cotton our King?” ( “Continental Monthly,” March, 1862); “Revenue reform” ( “Atlantic,” October, 1871); “An American view of American competition” ( “Fortnightly,” London, March, 1879); “The Unlearned Professions” ( “Atlantic,” June, 1880); “What makes the rate of interest” [230] ( “Forum,” 1880); “Elementary instruction in the Mechanics Arts” ( “Century,” May, 1881); “Leguminous plants suggested for Ensilage” ( “Agricultural,” 1882); “Economy in domestic cookery” ( “American architect,” May, 1887); “Must Humanity starve at last?” “How can Wages be increased?” “The struggle for Subsistence,” “The price of life” (all in “Forum” for 1888); “How Society reforms itself,” and “The problem of poverty” (both in “Forum” for 1889); “A single Tax on land” ( “Century,” 1890); and many others. When the amount of useful labor performed by the men of this generation comes to be reviewed a century hence, it is doubtful whether a more substantial and varied list will be found credited to the memory of any one in America than that which attaches to the memory of Edward Atkinson. [231]

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