Tuesday, June 25, 2019

No. 319: David McCullough—His New Book and a Connection with the History of American Life Insurance

David McCullough, now aged 85, is one of my favorite authors. I have read all of his books, and each is a treasure. Here I discuss his latest book. It is entitled The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. I also discuss a connection with R. Carlyle Buley, an Indiana University history professor who wrote extensively not only about the American pioneer period but also about the history of American life insurance.

McCullough's New Book
In his new book, McCullough begins with the 1783 Paris peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. John Adams and John Jay insisted that all the British land west of the Alleghenies and northwest of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River should be ceded to the new United States. The British reluctantly agreed, and the U.S. thus doubled its size by adding a huge amount of wilderness that eventually became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota.

Among the New Englanders who promoted the idea of settling the new territory were Manasseh Cutler, a churchman who had served as an army chaplain during the Revolutionary War, and Rufus Putnam, who had been a general in the War. George Washington also liked the idea.

In 1787, before a national constitution had yet been adopted, Congress approved the famous Northwest Ordinance. It provided for freedom of religion and emphasized the importance of education. But the most controversial section abolished slavery forever in the huge new territory. Thus eleven years after the Declaration of Independence and 73 years before the Civil War, the New Englanders who planned to settle the huge Northwest territory forever abolished slavery there. McCullough describes in detail how they accomplished the feat. Here is a small portion of that description (on pages 29-30):
But it was Article VI that set forth a tenet such as never before stated in any American constitution. "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory." And, as was well understood, this had been agreed to when slavery existed in every one of the thirteen states. It was almost unimaginable that throughout a new territory as large as all of the thirteen states, there was to be no slavery....
Overall Manasseh Cutler had played the most important role by far. Years later he would tell [his son] Ephraim he had indeed prepared that part of the ordinance banning slavery and, as Ephraim also recorded, the reason for this, as well as the recognition of religion, morality, and knowledge as foundations of civil government, arose from the fact that his father was "acting for associates, friends, and neighbors, who would not embark in the enterprise, unless these principles were unalterably fixed."
In the opinion of [Manasseh's] two grandchildren, William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, who would later edit and publish Manasseh Cutler's journals and correspondence, his way with the southern members of Congress had been the deciding factor.
In any event, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 would prove to be one of the most far-reaching acts of Congress in the history of the country.
As one widely respected, later-day historian, Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard University, would write, "Never was there a more ingenious, systematic and successful piece of lobbying than that of the Reverend Manasseh Cutler" and the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stands alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual.
McCullough focuses primarily on the settling of Ohio, particularly in the area around Marietta. Although he writes little about the developments in the other states of the Old Northwest, his book is fascinating.

McCullough's Earlier Books
The Pioneers is McCullough's twelfth book. Here, listed chronologically, are his earlier books.
  1. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known (1968)
  2. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972)
  3. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (1977)
  4. Mornings on Horseback (1981), about the young Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991), about several prominent American historical figures
  6. Truman (1992), for which he received a 1993 Pulitzer Prize
  7. John Adams (2001), for which he received a 2002 Pulitzer Prize
  8. 1776 (2005)
  9. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011), about American writers, poets, artists, sculptors, composers, and others who drew inspiration from the time they spent in Paris during the 19th century
  10. The Wright Brothers (2015)
  11. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (2017)
McCullough has received many awards in addition to the two Pulitzer Prizes mentioned above. He has received two National Book Awards, two Francis Parkman Prizes, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, many other awards, and dozens of honorary degrees.

R. Carlyle Buley
R. Carlyle Buley (1893-1968) served for many years as professor of history at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. He was the author of a two-volume work entitled The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period 1815-1840. It was published in 1950, and for it he received a 1951 Pulitzer Prize. His book is in McCullough's bibliography, and it is cited in a few notes. Unlike McCullough, Buley goes into detail about developments not only in Ohio but also in the other states of the Old Northwest.

I knew about Buley even before I arrived at IU in 1962. I had read his two major treatises about the history of life insurance in America. His first two-volume book about life insurance is entitled The American Life Convention 1906-1952: Study in the History of Life Insurance. It was published in 1953. The Convention was a life insurance company trade association that no longer exists. Almost 20 years ago it merged with what is now The American Council of Life Insurers. Buley wrote about the history of life insurance in America through a history of the Convention. For the book he received an Elizur Wright Award in recognition of "outstanding contribution to the literature of insurance."

Buley's second two-volume book about life insurance is entitled The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States 1859-1964. It was published in 1967. Most histories of life insurance companies are written in glowing language and serve as sales pieces that promote the companies. Buley's history of Equitable, however, is written "warts and all." Today, Equitable no longer exists. It was bailed out of financial trouble about 30 years ago by a French company (AXA), and became AXA Equitable Life.

As an illustration of Buley's writing style, here are excerpts from pages 208-209 in the first volume of The American Life Convention, where he described the lead up to the famous Hughes-Armstrong Investigation of 1905. The "unsavory mess" to which he referred was a combination of the prominent struggle for control of Equitable and the rapid growth of deferred dividend (or "semi-tontine") policies.
One conclusion was fairly general: That the whole unsavory mess would not be in vain if from the odor should arise a better popular understanding of the deferred dividend system which had done so much to increase the expense of life insurance and so little to increase the value of a life insurance policy... What critics of the deferred dividend system apparently did not recognize was that part of the difficulty arose from the inadequacy of accounting procedures, which permitted accumulated deferred dividends to be carried as surplus instead of as a reserve which the companies should have been required to maintain against the deferred dividend policies.
One prominent voice, however, was raised in public defense of the deferred dividend system. Thomas A. Buckner, vice president of the New York Life, reviewed the history of the deferred dividend practice and pointed to the figures which indicated the people's choice: the Connecticut Mutual in 1869 had $177 million of life insurance in force, in 1904 it had $167 million; in 1869 the New York Life had $102 million in force, in 1904 it had $1.9 billion.
Also it was thought that the flood of publicity would not only educate the public as to the nature of life insurance but that it would enlarge the perspective of life insurance men in general and help fix the status of life insurance in the social and economic life of the country. The foreseeable result would be the triumph of conservatism, sanity, honesty, and justice, a return to the creed of old-fashioned honesty as stated by Jacob L. Greene [of Connecticut Mutual], Amzi Dodd [of Mutual Benefit Life], and others of their school, men who believed that the life insurance companies should be operated for the benefit of the policyholders rather than that of the officers.
Six years before Buley died, I arrived in Bloomington to begin my academic career at IU. Although I already knew a lot about him, I regret to say I never met him.