Social Class and the Columbus, Indiana Success Story

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I’ve written in the past about Columbus, Indiana and its patriarch, J. Irwin Miller. As I said in the Atlantic, Columbus is the Rust Belt city that never rusted. It’s basically the only small manufacturing city I know of in the Midwest that never went through a real decline period.

Columbus is the home of diesel engine giant Cummins Engine. Miller, its CEO, was extremely committed to his hometown, and invested heavily to ensure it was a place that could attract the kind of talent that would allow an engineering based company to survive there. He most famously paid the architect’s fees to bring in a who’s who of modern architects to design buildings there, including many schools and other public buildings. The American Institute of Architects ranks Columbus as the 6th best architectural destination in the country.

But the investments go beyond that. At the dedication of a public golf course in Columbus paid for by Cummins, Miller said:

Why should an industrial company organized for profit think it a good and right thing to take $1 million and more of that profit and give it to this community in the form of this golf course and clubhouse? Why instead isn’t Cummins—the largest taxpayer in the country—spending the same energy to try to get its taxes reduced, the cost of education cut, the cost of city government cut, less money spent on streets and utilities and schools? The answer is that we should like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the best community of its size in the country.

As you can tell, Miller was a liberal Republican of the old school type. People marinated in modern conservatism are indoctrinated to look back negatively at this group. And they of course had their flaws. But Miller shows that they had great advantages as well - ones that have not been replicated sense.

I want to tie the Miller-Cummins-Columbus story back to my article on the old WASP establishment. Social class is almost entirely missing from any analysis of the past today, but you can’t fully understand the past without it. Class is a key part of understanding Miller’s life and value system.

Miller was the fourth generation patriarch of the first family of Columbus, the Irwin-Sweeny-Miller family. They say a WASP is someone who’s first name is a last name. In Miller’s case, his middle name Irwin was an ancestral surname. So from birth, he was in a secure position as a scion of the highest status family in town. He had lots of both green money and blue blood. He did not have to spend decades climbing that greasy pole to get to the top. Being born at the top provides a reflexive security that no parvenu will ever possess. It also made him feel confident in his right to lead. Additionally, it meant he had the luxury of getting, from a very early age, a first class education. And as an adult to have access to America’s movers and shakers at the national level.

He represents a later version of the shift from a local to national upper class that E. Digby Baltzell had documented in Philadelphia Gentlemen. His generation was the first to be educated in the east rather than locally. He attended Taft School in Connecticut, and then Yale. Historically his family had been deeply tied to Butler University, which was associated with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) denomination. Multiple family members had been ministers in this denomination and/or taught at the school. Miller never left the Disciples church to become Episcopalian, but he did align himself with the Northeastern establishment.

Miller was on the board of AT&T, Yale, the Ford Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art. He served as the first lay president of the National Council of Churches. In that role, he played a key role in promoting the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He ensured that Cummins was among the first companies to divest from South Africa over apartheid.

Miller makes multiple appearances in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book The Guardians about several key figures in the last generation of the WASP establishment. It would appear that he was one of the few WASP grandees who still ran a major family controlled business. Most of the rest were living off trust funds.

In 1967, Esquire magazine featured Miller on its cover, with the caption, “This man ought to be the next president of the United States.” The article, after a long preamble bemoaning the choices on offer in the 1968 election, is a fascinating interview with Miller.

An ardent Republican, he gives generously to party candidates, but has voted for Democrats-like Lyndon Johnson. A patron of modern art and architecture, he owns two homes de signed by Eero Saarinen. He reads the New Testament in Greek (he also reads Latin) and for years was a substitute Sunday-school teacher. For relaxation plays Bach on his Stradivarius, drives a speedboat, and plays golf on a new public course he recently donated to the city.

Along with his civics lessons, Miller imbibed the tenets of Republicanism, although he has often had only disgust for a state party dominated by the likes of former Senators William Jenner and Homer Capehart. And he has not hesitated to turn against the party when it nominated a man like Barry Goldwater. But he believes party affiliation is important:

“I don’t really believe in being independent. I think that the place of influence is in the primary and in the selection of candidates. If you leave initial selection up to others you have no choice. No political party is going to please you one hundred percent or even very much of the time, so you pick the party that outrages you the least and that’s the one you join. In a two-party system, each party is going to have a very wide spectrum of opinion.”

He pulled his Bible off the table behind him, leafed through it quickly, and read from the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah :

“‘Look to the rock from which you are hewn and to the quarry from which you are digged.’ This is what liberal arts does for the young man. Never forget where you came from, and how you got there. This doesn’t make you a conservative, this doesn’t make you always want to go back to something, but this gives you your base. And you understand that many things that seem to you to come naturally and very easily were in fact won the hard way. And it’s very hard to value them because you didn’t participate in the fight for them. So you may let loose of the form but you don’t let loose of the substance. This leads to another quotation.

“To the new generation the word ‘patriotism’ is a bad word, isn’t it, a really bad word. I looked it up the other day in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a bad word all the way through. Samuel Johnson called it the last refuge of a scoundrel. So I’ve been interested in what might be a valid definition of patriotism. Tacitus was a very conservative person but there is to be found in his Annals an electric phrase which says, ‘this praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors.’ Well, this is a very exciting and valid definition of patriotism. It means making an objective, realistic appraisal of the accomplishments of ancestors, understanding how difficult of achievement these were, under the circumstances in which they were worked, and a determination to see if you can’t do something comparable under your own circumstances.

This is a valid definition of patriotism. Not merely to change nothing. Not merely to repeat worn-out phrases, or to wrap the flag around you for the purpose of ending discussion. But to say, I’m going to accomplish in my own time something comparable to the accomplishments of my ancestors in their time. It may mean you would appear to wreck the joint in certain respects. But such could be a patriotic response by a political party, and it could be a patriotic response for an individual. It might mean you went to jail sometime, but so did many of our most revered ancestors.”

Miller is essentially a pragmatist. You do what works, not what is supposed to work according to some preconceived notion. Ways of solving problems must change as conditions change, if you are going to pursue effectively the same basic ends.

“I think we have seen that a lot of things don’t happen automatically,” he said wryly. “We’ve got our problems with race and they don’t solve themselves automatically; neither have our problems with the big city. Most of our major problems I think we can say have not naturally solved themselves.

“In Indiana we have the attitude that we are not going to let the big Federal government come in here and impose the welfare state and pump a lot of money in,” he continued. “This would have a lot of merit if we then said the second thing: we are going to solve our problems ourselves. We are going to tax ourselves and appropriate the money necessary to solve them. A weakness in this State is we didn’t state part two. We stated only part one.” The reluctance of most Republicans, especially Republicans with business backgrounds, to accept political change and more public efforts to cope with change strikes Miller as ironic. First of all, any businessman who did not accept change in his own business would soon go broke. “The engine which would have swept the market ten years ago is unsalable today,” he said. “The American businessman has always talked one way and acted another. And if you look at him closely, the way he acts is better than the way he talks. All right, he doesn’t act in politics, he only talks.

“Furthermore,” Miller added, “I don’t know of anybody in business who really wants business unregulated. Usually it’s for the other fellow to be regulated. The core of all this is a recognition that there have got to be some rules in this complex, fast-moving, interactive society we are in. Nobody wants the whole society free to run loose.”

“I think we’re suffering some of the pangs of bigness, and growth, and impersonality, but you can’t avoid being big. So many of the undertakings you want to accomplish in this society can’t be accomplished except by very large groups. Even the New Left wants the things made by the assembly line or the education at a large university. You’ve got to solve the problem of how you take on a big activity, but make bigness your servant, not your master.”

Miller’s ethos was not merely his own ethos or a family ethos, but was in part the WASP ethos. We are so used to focusing on the negatives of that group, such as their anti-Semitism, that we seldom consider the values they had that were lost.

I recently read a new biography of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. called The Last Brahmin. Lodge was one of the people responsible for the Vietnam fiasco. But he also had accomplishments as well such negotiating the peace treaty with Japan that formally ended World War II. Lodge had resigned his US Senate seat during World War II in order to serve in the Army. It’s impossible to conceive of someone doing that today.

But I was particularly struck that in retirement, Lodge was forced to sell of family artwork to raise funds. He was far from the only WASP who spent a lifetime in public service only to end up poorer for it. Former Yale president Kingman Brewster, the main subject of Kabaservice’s book, ended up a bit pinched in retirement. John Lindsay, former Congressman and mayor of New York, almost went broke and had to be rescued by Rudolph Giuliani.

It’s impossible today to conceive of someone spending a life in public service and not coming out obscenely enriched on the other end. Miller always had plenty of money, but he was someone who gave way more than he took, the opposite of how too many corporate titans behave today.

So when we bemoan that there are no more businessmen and leaders in American like Miller today, we should understand that one reason is that the social class that produced those leaders has been diminished to an un-influential rump in our country. Without the WASPs as a cultural bearing leadership class in America, the values they made normative (or at least aspirational) for the country as a whole have badly eroded away and will likely continue to do so.