I recently ran across a graduation address, presented at a high school in New York. It captures the thoughts of a young man, on the verge of adulthood, beginning to make sense of the world and his place in it. In a few months he’ll be off to join the freshman class at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
The Prevailing Discontent
Probably there is no one here tonight who does not know that the majority of our people are discontented. They are dissatisfied because their business is not profitable enough, their homes are not like those of their friend, their government is not carried on as they would have it, and their neighbors are not as good as they ought to be. In fact, they are dissatisfied with everything and everybody. So general is this feeling that perhaps there is not a person here tonight who is not more or less discontented with his present conditions and surroundings.
Would it not be profitable to spend a moment to ascertain the extent and causes of this feeling of unrest and discontent? The American people more than any others are affected by this feeling. In some ways it is a decided advantage to us. It spurs our ambition and prevents us from becoming slothful and indolent by keeping before us the examples of those who surpass us in business success. But is there not danger of carrying this feeling too far? There is such a thing as reasonable discontent as well as reasonable ambition. And at present it seems as if we are being seized by a very unreasonable spirit. On every side we hear the same cry of the tyranny of the rich and the privations of the poor. Why are the people so loudly complaining? Let us see if there are any good reasons for this clamor. What complaint do the different classes of people make?
The farmer is constantly complaining because the merchant or some other class of people are getting the best of this world. If he doesn’t make a certain sum of money each year, he thinks he would be better in the city. He does not realize that his table is furnished with the best that the soil can produce. He forgets that about four months in each year he has scarcely anything to do and that he is the most independent of all the different classes of people. He overlooks all this and considers his difficulties only.
The inhabitants of the city see the poor farmer come to market with a load of produce for which he receives a few dollars that he has probably earned three or four times over and thinks the man must be getting rich because he raises all he eats and does not have to pay house-rent.
But the city man sees the agricultural occupation in a different light than the farmer himself. He thinks the farmer has time to go fishing whenever he doesn’t feel like working because he is his own boss. He doesn’t see the seamy side of the farmer’s life. He never had to crawl around in an onion patch or a strawberry lot like a caterpillar or to take a day or two every little while tending potato bugs. Whenever a city man tries farming he generally goes back in a year or two quite satisfied with city life.
The common people read of the money which the Standard Oil Company and Sugar Kings are making but they do not realize that oil and sugar are much cheaper now than before the monopolies were formed. Nearly every person would join a trust if he could. The laborer joins the labor union to control the price of wages and if there was only a possible chance the farmers would build one of the greatest monopolies yet known.
The immigrants who are constantly being unloaded at our shores have a great deal to do with the dissatisfaction of our people. They work for less wages and therefore throw our people out of employment which not only makes them poor but gives them time to see someone who is acquiring wealth faster than they are. As a rule these immigrants are not of the best class but are criminals or some who were too lazy or quarrelsome to get a living where they were. They had the idea that if they could but reach America they would live like kings and their wives like queens, and being disappointed in this they straightaway turn anarchist and labor agitators.
Our people see their money lavishly spent by the government, for instance in the post office department the government pays to the railroads an average of 8 cents for the transportation of a pound of mail 448 miles. Besides renting 5000 postal cars for $3,600,000 annually which could actually be built for $2,000,000 and would last twenty years. Which the express companies carry milk a distance of 396 miles to New York at 1/6 cent per pound returning the cars free of charge. When the nation’s money is spent at this rate there is some reason for the people to be dissatisfied.
Much of this trouble is due the newspapers. Years ago these were scarce and people knew nothing of what the rich were doing. They did not hear of large balls upon which more money is expended than many a farmer sees in a lifetime. They knew only of what themselves and their neighbors possessed, and were satisfied with their condition.
Instead of looking at the true causes of this discontent people who are afflicted by this trouble can think of no other one to blame except the president and the prevailing political party. They think the political leaders sympathize with the rich men of the country and the monopolies and by taking advantage of this feeling as far back as many of us can remember, the leaders of the principal parties have succeeded in making the people believe something different each presidential election.
Yet no party satisfies us and we are no better off. The American people are today more prosperous than any other nation and although everything is not always as it should be even in America, instead of continually grumbling at our short comings why not spend more time in the enjoyment of the blessings which we already possess.
Charles A. Kircher,
Oration at the Webster (NY) Union School commencement, 22 June 1897
As you read the commencement address, did thoughts run through your head as to when it might have been written? (The money paid by the express companies to ship milk might have been a giveaway…) From the envelope in which I found these words I knew exactly when and why this address was presented. But the sentiments expressed are strikingly contemporary. With but a few changes, this exact same address might be given at any high school commencement in any city in America in the coming few weeks.
I was particularly struck with the author’s impressions of immigrants. Three out of the writer’s four grandparents were living at the time, joined by a step-grandfather on his mother’s side whom he had known his entire life. All four were 1850s-era immigrants, three from Germany and one from Switzerland. All his grandparents had come to America in their 20s. Many of the neighbors of his grandparents’ generation, the farmers in Webster on the eastern edge of Monroe County, were German immigrants. Their accents alone would have been a dead giveaway these people were immigrants. Did Charles see his grandparents and their contemporaries and anarchists and agitators? It’s doubtful.
Reading the thoughts of my grandfather reminds me again why I love genealogy so much. Though we may change our clothes or our hairstyles, the human psyche does not change. We as humans share the same hopes and dreams for our children and grandchildren, the same competitiveness against our neighbors and colleagues, the same fear and suspicion of “the other” as has every generation that has come before us. Every bit of history I read seems to reinforce this notion.
That’s not to say that individual attitudes might not develop and change as a person grows and sees more of the world. I know by my 18-year-old grandfather’s words what he believed in 1897. I only wish I could pick the brain of the same man in 1950, after all he saw in the ensuing 50 years. I look forward to engaging in such discussions with him (and his grandparents!) some day when I make it to heaven.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.