Daily Record: Progressive Era Reform: Chautauqua Institution in early 20th century

The Saturday evening, July 5, 1902, edition of The Chautauqua Assembly Herald reported in its Walks and Talks section how Professor John H. Finley once saved the town.

Finley reminisced about how he and Ida Tarbell had been sitting on the veranda of the Theodore Flood cottage back in the late 1880s. They saw a light flash among the trees beyond the Amphitheater. “ ‘It is a house on fire,’ cried Miss Tarbell,” the Herald reported.

Finley promptly landed on his head, “At the first bound over one of the benches that stood by the path,” Finley said. Once upright and in motion, “I seized a pitcher of water standing on the steps, and with that and a rug stayed the flames until water enough could be brought to extinguish them.”

While in 1902 Finley took credit for saving the late 1880s Chautauqua (with help from a pitcher and a rug), his companion from that evening, Tarbell, former writer for and managing editor of The Chautauquan magazine, was in the midst of composing her exposé on John D. Rockefeller in 1904 to be published as The History of the Standard Oil Company.

With the book’s publication, Tarbell was included as one of the standard bearers for the turn-of-the-century, Progressive Era, investigative journalists known as muckrakers. President Theodore Roosevelt referenced the label in an April 1906 speech dedicating the U.S. House of Representatives office building.

Roosevelt acknowledged there were evils in the body politic, and there should be “relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil … whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”

The 1902 Chautauqua Assembly Herald revealed Chautauqua Institution to be in step with a Progressive Era as well as a spirit of reform. In fact, the Assembly, as it had been previously known, was now officially an Institution, having been recognized as such by an act of the New York State Legislature that “consolidates the old Chautauqua charters, broadens the scope of the Institution and provides that self-perpetuation type of government which has proved by experience to be essential to the success of an educational institution,” the Herald reported.

An editorial said that “Under these auspices Chautauqua is in a position to do its work more effectively, to secure the co-operation of strong men and to add to its funds and buildings.”

In his remarks to open the 1902 season George Vincent, principal of instruction, said “the term ‘institution’ suggests something inspiring and majestic. … People will come here, not for what they can get out of Chautauqua, as the name ‘resort’ would imply, but for what they can contribute to its life and spirit.”

Vincent himself did just that, giving three lectures in the first week, one on the psychology of fashion, a second on the psychology of the crowd and a third on knowledge versus wisdom.

The Herald reported there would be a complete reorganization of the musical department under the direction of Mr. Alfred Hallam, of New York. He was a “practical enthusiast and well-schooled in his profession.”

Reform was a word of the day. Chautauqua hosted its first conference on the Social Settlement, and Jane Addams of Hull House was a featured participant. An editorial in the July 5, 1902, Herald clarified that the movement grew out of the last quarter-century and interest in “uplifting of the condition of the people resident in the so-called ‘slum’ districts of the great cities.”

Knowledge of such people and the conditions in which they lived arose from “the pen of writers like Dickens in England, Tolstoy in Russia, Zola in France and numerous reform writers in this country,” the editorial said.

The Walks and Talks section of the Herald took up social settlement as well, including a photo of Jane Addams and quoting from her book Democracy and Social Ethics: “As Democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be. We have come to believe that the most ‘brutish man’ has a value in our common life, a function to perform which can be fulfilled by no one else. We are gradually requiring of the educator that he shall free the powers of each man and connect him with the rest of life.”

In 1902, Professor Earl Barnes of Philadelphia gave a series of lectures on “The Moral Development of the Child.” In the series, Barnes addressed in separate lectures the dichotomies “Selfishness vs. Altruism,” “Truth vs. Lies,” and “Sympathy vs. Cruelty.” In the third lecture, Barnes inquired into what possibly contributes to the growth of humane feelings.

“Fighting has been so prominent an occupation of man through all time that we have not yet developed a word to represent the positive virtues of which cruelty is the negation,” Barnes said.

Cruelty is innate to the animal world, as is selfishness and deceit.

“The cat that immediately kills the mouse loses half the pleasure of her meal,” he said.

Children can be especially cruel, Barnes said. A child’s life is fragmentary.

“He represents a low grade, undeveloped mind,” he said. “He is ignorant, inexperienced. He inflicts pain unintentionally but constantly.”

What to do about this? Reform society. Four forces sustain the paradigm of cruelty in the world: war, it goes without saying; food supply, to raise millions of animals that we may kill to eat involves cruelty; sport, Barnes supplies no reasoning; and science.

Barnes said “as long as science goes on we must submit living things to pain that we may relieve other pain. So long as the world exists as it is today we must be meat-eaters.”

On Aug. 5, Edward Howard Griggs, formerly of Leland Stanford University and now public lecturer, author of The New Humanism: Studies on Personal and Social Development, gave a lecture on St. Francis of Assisi.

Griggs called Saint Francis “one of the most attractive characters in the history of Europe,” and possibly “one of the most perfect Christians since the apostolic age. It is a far cry from the days of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, from the gloom of Marcus Aurelius to the sweetness, enthusiasm of Saint Frances, and in the thousand years intervening a new type of civilization had taken possession of Europe.”

Francis’s life covered the first quarter of the 13th century, the time of Giotto and Dante. Griggs said it was a powerful and potent time. “It amazes us to see the range and freedom of thought that were developed even in ages when authority dominated every line of thought.”

The 13th century showed itself on the surface in “feudalism, in chivalry and in the love poetry,” while the underlying tendency was “spiritual, religious, [and] ethical. There is here all the hunger for knowledge and beauty which came out later in the Renaissance,” Griggs said.

By the close of 12th century, Christianity had accomplished its first great movement and had its great institution, the papal authority, to which all men looked.

“All great reforms begin as individual ideas,” Griggs said. “By and by they take shape in an institution, it formulates itself, crystallizes, and the danger and tendency is that the personal life shall ebb away and the institution be left to roll on, divested of its vitality, of the personal factor and ideal; and then new reforms must be instituted.”

Griggs said it was time to return to the primitive teaching of Christ.

“It is this reform we are to study in St. Francis of Assisi,” he said.