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.
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.”
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
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
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.