The Magazine

Jane Addams's Values

The haunting of Hull House.

Mar 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 27 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy
by Jean Bethke Elshtain
Basic, 336 pp., $28

The Jane Addams Reader
edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain
Basic, 432 pp., $20

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, intends her sympathetic intellectual biography of Jane Addams and her companion anthology of Addams's writings to contribute not only to an appreciation of Addams, but also to the current public debate about the meaning of democracy in America. Indeed, in the preface to her biography, Elshtain contends the intellectual and political stakes are particularly high: "Concerns about America's civic health, voiced in recent public and scholarly debates, have brought to the fore the urgent need for a revaluation of the status of democracy in the United States."

We are thus at "a propitious moment," according to Elshtain, at which to reconsider Jane Addams, who was born just before the Civil War in 1860, lived to see the New Deal before her death in 1935, and at the turn of the century founded Chicago's famous Hull House. Addams, in Elshtain's reading, provides a model of the importance of balancing and blending competing goods--family commitments and social commitments, discipline and compassion, community engagement and intellectual inquiry--essential to realizing the dream of American democracy. What Elshtain's well-balanced account also reveals is that achieving and maintaining the right balance and blend is a daunting and endless task.

In fact, the last fifteen years or so have witnessed striking efforts by public intellectuals and politicians from both parties to balance and blend goods whose irreconcilability had long been taken for granted. In the 1980s the Democratic Leadership Council (led by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, among others) concluded that the Democrats had mistakenly ceded to Republicans care for a variety of critical goods--including personal responsibility, the family, religious worship, civic participation--essential to the public interest. Then, in the late 1990s, George W. Bush introduced himself to the nation as a new kind of conservative, a compassionate conservative. Bush affirmed familiar conservative themes--lower taxes, freer markets, tougher educational standards, and stronger defense--while stressing that a proper concern for limited government was consistent with government support of private efforts to address the needs of those whose poverty, or illness, or age made it impossible for them to care for themselves.

Was all this good for democracy or bad? On one interpretation, the balancing and blending embodied in, say, the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law in 1996, President Bush's faith-based initiative, and the rise of the school choice movement exhibit a high-minded determination to craft public policy that reflects the competing claims of genuine goods. On another interpretation, these undertakings betray a cynical scheme, common to both parties, to co-opt the nation's growing numbers of independent voters.

This is the background against which Elshtain takes up Jane Addams. By showing that high-minded political attempts to give competing goods their due are possible and can advance the cause of democracy, Elshtain aims to equip us to resist cynical dismissals. And by dramatizing the professional and personal demands imposed by such high-mindedness, how in politics it can lead one to lose one's balance, she cautions against romanticizing idealism.

Addams's reputation has lost much luster since the height of her acclaim, in 1910, which saw the publication of her masterpiece, "Twenty Years at Hull House." When she died twenty-five years later, Addams was, Elshtain reports, "America's best-known and most widely hailed female public figure." Yet her fervent pacifism and vocal internationalism in response to World War I had earned her intense and persistent public opprobrium, and her reputation has never entirely recovered.

Much of the criticism, Elshtain shows, is vulgar and baseless. While still alive, she was denounced as a Communist sympathizer whose selfless work on behalf of the poor served as a guise under which she sought to promulgate radical anti-American ideas. No better are the contemporary academic critics who condescendingly condemn her as a cultural imperialist out to "civilize the masses" and indignantly disparage her as an elitist determined to stamp out the diversity that immigrants brought to this country and impose on them a homogenized American identity.