Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy
by Louise W. Knight
University of Chicago Press, 2005
582 pp., $35
Jane Addams (1860-1935) was among the most influential philanthropists—more broadly, among the most influential individuals—in American history. Addams was the cofounder of Chicago’s Hull House in 1889 and the most prominent figure in America’s settlement house movement, in which members of the middle class took up residence in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods, offering cultural and recreational opportunities to residents. Addams thereby embodied a familiar ideal: personal service to the poor. But she gave a new twist to that ideal, powerfully and effectively advocating government programs as the principal means of improving the material condition of the poor. In the words of an earlier biographer, Addams envisioned “an all-pervasive welfare state”—notwithstanding the fact that an all-pervasive welfare state is the antithesis of personal service to the poor.
Louise Knight has produced what she calls a “half-life” of Addams, culminating in 1899. Thus her book ends just halfway through the twenty years at Hull House that Addams memorably depicted in her classic memoir of that name, first published in 1910. Despite this obvious limitation, the book is nevertheless the best biography of Addams ever written.
Knight rightly observes that previous biographers have tended to project Addams’ later ideas, which emerged as a result of her experiences at Hull House, onto her decision to found the settlement house. Doing so has obscured her considerable intellectual evolution. Addams became a social reformer, but she was not born one. Thus Knight explains how “the daughter of a superior-minded, morally absolutist, Victorian upper-middle-class family . . . developed into one of America’s foremost social democrats and into one of its most pragmatic ethicists.” In effect, she tells us how and why Addams came to question “the two interlocking and dominant theories, or ideologies, of the day: the economic theory of capitalism and the moral theory of individualism”—the latter of which stressed that people were “responsible for improving their own [economic] circumstances.”
As a college student Addams wrote disdainful essays about tramps and immigrants. Furthermore, Knight shows that when Addams founded Hull House, she was actually uninterested in material poverty. Instead she conceived of the settlement house largely as an effort “to bring culture as she understood it to those whom she perceived to be without it.” (Thus one Hull House hallmark was college extension courses, offered to area residents in subjects such as French, Greek, Latin, and the history of art.) In an 1890 letter Addams explicitly stated that she had founded Hull House not to “stem poverty” but to “fortify” the spirits of area residents.
By contrast, largely as a result of her experiencing the financial panic of 1893 (as Knight observes, “the most severe economic crisis in the nation’s history” to that point), Addams shifted course. She became aware of the need to combat poverty and hence became “increasingly engaged in shaping governmental policy,” supporting, for example, regulation of sweatshops and the unionization of labor. Henceforth Addams would increasingly question the capitalist economics and moral individualism preached by her father, a self-made man who became a wealthy miller and manufacturer.
Knight writes as an unabashed supporter of Addams’ shift from individualist to social ethics, which led her to argue that the government should take steps to reduce poverty. To her credit, though, Knight also recognizes some of Addams’ less attractive characteristics. Addams could condescend to the poor on whose behalf she toiled, for example by describing workers as “primitive” and “less intelligent” than the middle class. She could also be self-righteous, as she was when she criticized a group of “young men and women ambitious to better themselves,” who were more troubled by instances of lower-class rowdiness than Addams thought appropriate.
In one important respect, though, Knight is less critical of Addams than she should be. Knight portrays as an unequivocal advance Addams’ rejection of “moral absolutism” (Knight’s term, not Addams’), the belief that “a single true, moral way existed.” She praises Addams for coming to understand that different sorts of people have different moral codes, and that moral codes evolve over time.
Yet the moral relativism that Addams came to espouse is problematic, as becomes apparent when one considers some of her writings from the late 1890s (including in particular a critique of the charities of that time), which Knight examines only briefly. Here Addams argued that it was wrong for charity workers to insist that the able-bodied poor “must work and be self-supporting.” A “middle-class moralist” who urged “upon the workingman the specialized virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety” was deemed to be “incorrigibly bourgeois,” because it is wrong “ruthlessly [to] force our conventions and standards” upon the poor.
The seeds of much calamitous twentieth-century antipoverty philanthropy and public policy can be found in these quotations. The once widespread belief—an outgrowth of Addams’ views—that the middle class should aspire to self-reliance but the poor need not share that aspiration led, predictably, to the poor’s ensnarement in a web of dependency. The claim that the poor need not—perhaps even should not—seek to embody “the specialized virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety” predictably discouraged poor people from practicing precisely the behaviors that are most likely to allow them to escape their poverty.
How is Addams’s career relevant to philanthropists today? One way of answering that question is to think of Addams as a tragic figure of sorts, whose arguments contradicted her own actions. It is obviously the case that the settlement movement, which played such a prominent role in America in the first half of the twentieth century, is far less significant today. Ironically, though, the decline of the settlement movement followed logically from the arguments espoused by its best-known leader—Jane Addams.
As noted earlier, settlement houses like Hull House existed so as to enable the middle class to assist the poor. And they did so not by giving the poor handouts, but by helping them to help themselves. (For example, Hull House ran a labor bureau to help the unemployed find jobs and opened a bank to make it easier for the poor to save rather than spend the small amounts of money that they had on hand.)
But Addams’s arguments undercut this function. If the middle class and the poor have radically different outlooks and moral understandings, how can the former plausibly advise the latter? They can’t; and as Addams’s arguments took hold, they ceased to do so.
Addams’s advocacy of the welfare state also delegitimized the idea of personal service to the poor. The welfare state exists to provide the poor with cash; if cash in and of itself solves the problems of the poor, advising the poor (for example, by teaching the poor how to spend wisely, and why it is important to save) becomes irrelevant if not presumptuous.
The idea of personal service to the poor, embodied by Addams, is both noble and useful, despite the arguments by Addams that ultimately called it into question. The lesson that philanthropists should draw from Addams’s life is encapsulated in a remark by the late and unlamented John Mitchell (Attorney General in the Nixon administration), who famously once advised people to “watch what we do, not what we say.” Addams should be approached in this way. Philanthropists should watch (and be guided by) what she did, when she helped the poor to help themselves. But they should resolutely ignore what she said, when she formulated a far-too-influential case against helping the poor to help themselves.
Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.