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  • Quality Inequality: The Virginian and the Invention of Meritocracy
  • Jason Potts (bio)

There’s almost nothing the matter with this country but the politician’s vicious misinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Inequality is the first law of the Universe one meets, and it is inexorable.

Owen Wister, letter to Wallace Rice, June 18, 1902

Given that Edward Bellamy’s Nationalist party’s slogan was “From each equally; to each equally” (25), it had to come as a great disappointment to him when his brother, Francis, informed him that he was deleting the words “equality” and “fraternity” from the Pledge of Allegiance that he was drafting for the quadricentennial celebration of Columbus Day in 1892. But Francis—who was the chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association, a Baptist minister, and a spokesperson for his brother’s political party—knew that the state superintendents’ opposition to equality for women and African Americans made the excision of “equality” and “fraternity” inevitable.1 While Francis acknowledged that “liberty and justice were surely basic, undebatable, and all that any one nation could handle,” “‘fraternity’ was the remote of realization and ‘equality’ was a dubious word.”2

Francis’s capitulation makes obvious the power that racist and sexist interests had in turn-of-the-century American politics; less obvious, however, was his tacit acknowledgment of an even more pervasive assault on the nation’s commitment to an equality of opportunity—a remarkable result given how the American public had responded to his brother’s best-selling utopian novel only four years earlier.3 Where socialist and [End Page 231] communist movements had failed to generate widespread popular support, Americans had responded to the contention of Julian West, the hero of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, who identified an emerging rift developing out of the nation’s philosophical commitments: how could a society organized around private property extend an equality of opportunity to successive generations across time? The problem, as West explains to his fiancée after being transplanted from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, had to do with opportunity. While everyone had the chance to succeed “when the country was new,” as West explains in Equality (the sequel to Looking Backward), “it was no more so in my day . . . Capital had practically monopolized all economic opportunities,” he continues, such that opportunity turned out to depend on the possession of either “large capital” or “extraordinary fortune.”4

Looking Backward’s success had led to the creation of Bellamy clubs across the country and to the inception of the National Party, which quickly signed up more than a million Americans. The Party’s promise to produce a level playing field by nationalizing all economic capital and by eliminating differences in education and inheritance struck a chord with those looking to hit the nation’s reset button in order to reestablish an equality of opportunity from which previous generations had benefitted and to which the current generation felt entitled. Making it the government’s “very principle to see that every one’s special faculties and aptitudes are cultivated, and when ascertained are given the utmost scope,” the Party pledged to make it the “policy of the nation, in the people’s common interest” that “merit alone commands precedence, and that the tools go always to the hands that can best use them.”5 Calling for an end to the spoils system that allowed the Federal Civil Service to hire on the basis of an individual’s political ideology rather than a candidate’s abilities, Bellamy proclaimed that “The New Nation will advocate civil-service reform in a more radical form than it has been commonly urged heretofore.”6

Although more recent accounts of American literary nationalism have ignored civil service reform and the debates it generated about opportunity, merit, and class, their centrality to the period’s politics is incontestable. As William Boyd wrote in the Cambridge History of American Literature (1917), the principle behind civil service reform—“that efficiency and merit rather than party loyalty should be the standard for public office—aroused the intellectual class as had no issue except that of slavery.”7 That this...


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pp. 231-257
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