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The American Way
by Bob Cheeks
23 January 2004The American Way

Allan Carlson’s The American Way is a brilliantly conceived and provocatively written social history that will challenge the accepted view, confuse the court historians, and enlighten the reading public.


Allan Carlson is fully cognizant of the pernicious effect that modernity has on the American family. Skyrocketing divorce rates, illegitimate births, babes eviscerated in the womb, a dramatic increase in sexually transmitted diseases, mothers abandoning the home in favor of the workplace and today, the combat zone, are some of the elements tearing at the nation’s social order.

In his new book, The American Way, Dr. Carlson explains, in some detail, the forces that have acted on the American family over the past century. His research is meticulous, his writing is clear and concise, and his findings are, at times, provocative but always logical. The result of his efforts is a singular and important social history.

The author’s thesis is predicated on two points: first, that Americans have historically and uniquely viewed the family and religion as the most important components of social order and, second, that the founding generation engaged in revolution, not so much for “individual” freedom, but to secure what Barry Shain, in his book: The Myth of American Individualism, describes as “familial independence.” As Dr. Carlson writes: “…they were a people bound by family, spiritual community, and social convention.”

Dr. Carlson begins the book a century ago with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. T.R. -- a student of government statistics -- was aware that the birthrate had, over the previous decade, fallen nearly 30% and that divorces had increased threefold and he was determined to use the bully pulpit to address these issues. He connected patriotism to strong and preferably large families where the father worked a job that paid the bills and the mother stayed home and cared for the children. To his credit, T.R. was inclined to praise the “country life” as an ideal situation in which to raise and nurture children. The Jeffersonian side of his personality shined when he wrote: “The small landowner…the men of the soil, have hitherto made the foundation of lasting national life in every state.”

T.R. confronted two foes: a nascent feminism, and industrialism. To engage these forces the president called for radical policies including the use of progressive taxation to “break up the great landed estates,” the creation of state sponsored extension programs for rural women, government aid for widowed or abandoned mothers, a more prominent role by government in collecting child support from miscreant fathers, and a decided preference for the “German welfare system,” that provided family health care.
Also, Roosevelt desired significant tax exemptions for families with children; the more children you had the less taxes you paid. And, he called on business to pay a “family” wage “sufficient to sustain the home.” He even suggested that the lowest salaries be paid to men or women with no children.

All of this leads us to the conclusion that the old “Roughrider” took Progressivism seriously. Dr. Carlson writes that T.R. had established his family policy, including his adamant opposition to birth control, “on strictly secular grounds…and not as a consequence of fidelity to God’s will for humankind.” Carlson makes an important point, but he should have developed it more.

The author also explains that T.R.’s tax policies came to fruition during his cousin, Franklin’s administration in the 1940’s, and along with “employment patterns after WWII (that) favored family wages for fathers,” resulted in rising birthrates and declining divorce rates. Dr.  Carlson’s point is well taken, however, another perspective is that the maladroit FDR buried the nation so deep in the Depression that, financially, people were unable to have the number of children they, perhaps, desired. And, that FDR’s unnecessarily extended Depression, coupled with WW II, acted to restrain the growth of the American family until the soldiers, sailors, and marines returned and did their duty! The same can be said of T.R.’s statistical survey regarding birthrates and divorces, circa 1900. At this time the American family may have been dealing with the economic aftermath of the Panic of 1893.
Also, Dr. Carlson doesn’t discuss the establishment of the Federal Income Tax in 1913. I would be very interested in knowing his opinion of the effects of the income tax on families, say in the 70’s or 80’s.

Carlson’s second chapter, or episode, describes the profound effect that German immigrants had on American family policy. From these culturally rich communities sprang the Settlement House movement “and its direct offshoot, the maternalist campaign.” The author’s historical review is in depth and enlightening. The effect of the Settlement House (and maternalist) women on national legislation was enormous. The down side is that these ladies were a gaggle of socialists and the first disciples of the “Social Gospel,” imported from Germany. Carlson relates an amusing anecdote concerning the “first policy victory” of the maternalists, the establishment of the U.S. Children’s Bureau (1912). It seems bureaucrats from that agency tried heartily to convince immigrant Italian mothers to stop eating spaghetti!

Dr. Carlson points out that the maternalists, themselves, lasted well into the 1940’s and guided the sundry bureaucracies away from the European welfare system. They categorically rejected the Swedish welfare state’s dictum that “…gave the highest priority to social liberty and equality of the individual, especially in matters of gender.” Rather, the maternalists called for “social policy to recognize the centrality of the home and the primary power of the breadwinner/homemaker/child-rich family.” It was these policies that warmed the cockles of Franklin and Eleanor’s heart and resulted in the establishment of an alphabet soup of federal agencies and bureaucracies designed to service and strengthen the economic needs of the American family.

The radical feminists of that day, the National Women’s Party, tried to institute an Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 but were thwarted, in large measure by the maternalists efforts. Interestingly, the NWP appears to have worked hand-in-hand not only with the GOP but with “industrial interests to oppose laws against child labor or to sink measures protecting women from industrial abuse.”
In his chapter (episode) on the publisher, Henry Robinson Luce, Carlson shows how Life magazine was dedicated to the idea of providing Americans with a “basic consensus.” His failure, according to former Life editor, John Chamberlain was Luce’s belief that “…heaven could be created on earth through human will.” Carlson excels in his application of “antimodernist” Richard Weaver’s seminal work, Ideas Have Consequences.
Weaver argued that America was unraveling because society’s intrinsic goal was now the attainment of comfort through consumption. A concept the Wal-Mart nation continues to deal with, daily!

In his penultimate chapter (episode), Cold War and the American Style, Carlson explores in depth, the nexus between our domestic and foreign policies during the 50’s and 60’s, the Vietnam War, student and racial unrest, and the efforts of the Johnson/Nixon administrations to abandon the maternalist welfare model. He provides data indicating a decided moral decline occurring in the 60’s and continuing through the 80’s. Higher divorce rates and illegitimate births strongly indicated a rapid and profound abandonment of conventional moral principles. Unfortunately, Dr. Carlson addresses the issues from a foreign and domestic policy perspective rather than examining the religious aspect. For example: the effects of Vatican II, the embrace by some mainstream Protestant churches of the “social gospel,” and the rise of the “evangelical” churches.

In his final chapter (episode), From Maternalism to Reaganism and, Beyond, in a brilliant historical exegesis, Dr. Carlson describes the destruction of the maternalist movement. The death knell for New Deal maternalism was sounded in July of 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. A coterie of Dixiecrat segregationists and equity feminists had joined together in Congress to add the word “gender” to the law. It would be a federal crime to discriminate in employment on the basis of sex. Over the next several years the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) called for the elimination of state labor laws that protected  “sex specific hiring, seniority, and promotion practices.” The result ended “America’s informal family wage system” and produced a staggering decline in median income for families in which the mother stayed home. The traditional American family found itself in reduced circumstances.

Carlson’s explanation of the maternalists failure is objective and accurate: the maternalists had placed their faith in government and in so doing turned their backs on “…local communities and institutions.” Federal bureaucrats were running about America like so many ants, “…displacing home-grown solutions to various problems.” And, the maternalists' enemies, National Women’s Party, were much closer aligned with the policies of the central government and national corporations that benefited “…from an expanded labor pool, which held down wages and rid them of the “family wage” concept they found so noxious.” Accordingly, the American welfare state came under pressure because the “premise of the family wage” had lain the “foundation on which the benefit system” had been established.

Dr. Carlson also details the historic and unprecedented “political realignment” that occurred between 1964 (the Civil Rights Act) and 1980 -- with the advent of the Reagan Democrats and he touches on the deleterious effects of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 and immigration in general.

Carlson explains how the Reagan Administration attempted to connect “family values” with corporate interests, primarily through the Bauer Report of November 1986. His comments on the report and the effort in general are instructive: “…the report reflected the never-ending attempt by conservative writers and policymakers to provide some coherence to the new, historically odd, and uncertain Reagan coalition of “free-market capitalism” and “traditional values;” in other words, that it was an effort to convince business-oriented Republicans that they needed “the family” for more than just votes.”

While President Reagan truly embraced the idea of “family values,” he so often and eloquently spoke of, his administration ultimately failed in its efforts at coalition building because it would not threaten “big business” with a re-introduction of the “family wage” concept and refused to address the issue of what “type” of family would be protected under the aegis of government.

Carlson illustrates the continuing decline of the traditional American morals by quoting from John Harmon McElroy’s recent book, American Beliefs; “In no period of American history…have families in every class of American society been so disrupted by marital infidelity and divorce…, out-of-wedlock pregnancies…, abortions and new venereal diseases such as AIDS and herpes”; “(t) he same period has likewise seen a growing disrespect for community standards of decency.”

However, in the end Dr. Carlson is optimistic. The traditional American family is society’s first line of defense against the potential abuse of power of the federal government and as such must survive the statist onslaught. In order to accomplish that task the author offers six dictums that, if applied, may very well turn the nation around and head us back to the old American Order and a humane life. The author is calling for a return to what Russell Kirk referred to as “the permanent things,” for a rebirth of that moral authority that can revitalize “the American family.”

Historian Christopher Dawson was correct when he wrote in his essay, The Christian View of History, “For man is not merely a creature of economic process -- a producer and a consumer. He is an animal that is conscious of his mortality and consequently aware of eternity.”

Allan Carlson’s The American Way is a brilliantly conceived and provocatively written social history that will challenge the accepted view, confuse the court historians, and enlighten the reading public.

The American Way is available at Amazon.com.

Bob Cheeks has written for The American Enterprise, Human Events, Southern Partisan, and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review
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