U.S. Grant and H.G. Wells

GrantI’ve been reading through Grant’s Memoirs again, this time focusing more on the Conclusion. It’s classic Grant: dry and to the point. Here’s the opening sentence: “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United Status will have to be attributed to slavery.” It can’t be put any more plainly than that, except maybe for “will have to be,” which is ambiguous enough to maybe give Confederacy apologists some wiggle room. But it seems clear, and this is from someone who was there.

Grant also attributes the start of the War to the spread of information through new technologies:

In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind. But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution.

And the War itself helped to further the spread of information:

We must conclude…that wars are not always evils unmixed with some good.

Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers. So much was the country divided into small communities that localized idioms had grown up, so that you could almost tell what section a person was from by hearing him speak. Before, new territories were settled by a “class”; people who shunned contact with others; people who, when the country began to settle up around them, would push out farther from civilization. Their guns furnished meat, and the cultivation of a very limited amount of the soil, their bread and vegetables. All the streams abounded with fish. Trapping would furnish pelts to be brought into the States once a year, to pay for necessary articles which they could not raise—powder, lead, whiskey, tobacco and some store goods. Occasionally some little articles of luxury would enter into these purchases—a quarter of a pound of tea, two or three pounds of coffee, more of sugar, some playing cards, and if anything was left over of the proceeds of the sale, more whiskey.

Little was known of the topography of the country beyond the settlements of these frontiersmen. This is all changed now. The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that particular idioms and pronunciation are no longer localized to any great extent; the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.

The war has made us a nation of great power and intelligence.

Here, in his usual laconic fashion, Grant prefigures the arguments of another writer who was only 20 years old when Grant died, not to mention a continent away: H.G. Wells.

h-g-wells-39224-1-402Although famous for his science fiction novels, especially War of the Worlds, much of Wells’ work advocated for a kind of one-world socialism–not unusual for someone who lived during the Great War–and founded on the natural, ultimate eradication of nationalism through the rise of science and technology. For Wells, science was making nationalist politics obsolete. The theme shows up in, e.g., The War in the Air, The World Set Free, The Salvaging of Civilization, and The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth.

Unlike Grant, though, Wells saw war as serious threat to the natural growth of humanity. In the Preface to The Salvaging of Civilization, he wrote:

We are in one of those phases of experience which become cardinal in history. A series of immense and tragic events have shattered the self-complacency and challenged the will and intelligence of mankind. That easy general forward movement of human affairs which for several generations had seemed to justify the persuasion of a necessary and invincible progress, progress towards greater powers, greater happiness, and a continual enlargement of life, has been checked violently and perhaps arrested altogether. The spectacular catastrophe of the Great War has revealed an accumulation of destructive forces in our outwardly prosperous society, of which few of us had dreamt; and it has also revealed a profound incapacity to deal with and restrain these forces. The two years of want, confusion, and indecision that have followed the Great War in Europe and Asia, and the uncertainties that have disturbed life even in the comparatively untouched American world, seem to many watchful minds even more ominous to our social order than the war itself. What is happening to our race? they ask. Did the prosperities and confident hopes with which the twentieth century opened, mark nothing more than a culmination of fortuitous good luck? Has the cycle of prosperity and progress closed? To what will this staggering and blundering, the hatreds and mischievous adventures of the present time, bring us?

On the one hand, the spread and consolidation of a unifying central power; on the other, a paroxysm of patriotic nationalism and the threat of retreat into tribalism. Either way, I find it remarkable that both men, seemingly so far apart, could be writing about similar themes. It’s a shame that Grant and Wells never had the chance to share a cigar and discuss war.


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