Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: We the People by Roy Bergengren

Reading through the works of credit union pioneer Roy F. Bergengren, it quickly becomes apparent that his books fall into two categories. The first consists of his "Credit Union Books" which, as the name suggests, were written for the benefit of the movement in a narrow sense. Containing practical guides to starting and running a credit union, the contact information of important people in the movement, and updates as to its status both nationally and in various locales, these books were primarily intended to be aids to credit unionists across North America as they struggled to build the movement from the ground up.

Although such texts make up the bulk of Bergengren's oeuvre, he also penned three works in response to contemporary events that take a much broader perspective. His memoirs can be seen in this light as a philosophical reflection upon his career as a co-operative organizer, and I Speak for Joe Doakes, written in 1944, is a call for international and economic co-operation as a way to prevent yet another world war from decimating yet another generation. However, the most involved and comprehensive of these books is We The People: Being an Impudent Dissertation on Certain National and International Matters.

Written in the depths of the Great Depression just prior to the 1932 election which brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House, We the People aims to get at the root of the economic crisis that had engulfed American society since 1929. The crux of his argument is deceptively simple, yet almost overwhelmingly huge in scale and scope. As he puts it in the first chapter:
It seemed to me that if I could satisfy myself that we, the people of the United States, have a well defined purpose in our national life it would not be too difficult thereafter to make some estimate of the proper relationship of our present generation to that purpose--our responsibilities, our contributions, our failures where we have failed to strive to an increasingly greater realization of that purpose. This book is a result of that study. In it I try first to define our national purpose and, to sustain my conclusions, to present witnesses and to submit the testimony of great events. Next I try to make some diagnosis of the state of America--to determine whether or not we are still striving with singleness of purpose toward our national ideal. Have we detoured from the true national highway? If so, how can we relocate the main way again?1

In order to determine America's purpose, Bergengren turns to the "great men" of American history, noting that "Someone has said: 'The history of the United States is primarily the epic which relates great men and great events.'"2 By examining the lives and works of such defining figures, he argues, the nation's over-arching metaphysical purpose might be discerned. As such, he delves deeply into the biographies of a number of historical figures, devoting full chapters to Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln, and discusses several other men (all men) at length. At the end of this long and involved discussion that runs over 150 pages, he comes to a surprisingly laconic conclusion. "What is the purpose of America? We hold this truth to be still self-evident--that all men are created equal."3

For the second half of the book, in which he investigates the relationship of present conditions with that purpose, Bergengren continues to rely on the great men of American history by using a metaphor that, as a Harvard-trained lawyer, must have come naturally to him: a jury. After discussing his rationale for which prominent figures should be given seats among the twelve jurors, Bergengren spends the next hundred pages outlining various issues, from machinery to usury to motion pictures, that he argues have, in part, contributed to America straying from its national purpose.

Finally, once all of his evidence is laid out for the jury of Great Men's examination, Bergengren makes his pitch for how to get America back on track. First, he argues that the country must shake off the temptation of isolationism and engage in international cooperation in the promotion of peace and prosperity through the cancellation of war-debts (such as those created by the Treaty of Versailles), advocacy for mutual disarmament plans, and support for bodies such as the League of Nations. The failure to do so, he presciently argues, would be to set the stage for another world war of ruinous consequence.

Second, he advocates for economic cooperation in all forms, not just the credit unions that he'd spent the previous decade organizing. Capitalism, he argues, had produced much wealth and economic good, but its weaknesses were responsible for the Depression. Furthermore, it is not the only economic system which is in line with the purpose of America. As he puts it, "those who perished at Valley Forge were not making the supreme sacrifice in order to make certain that an individual with an unearned income of a million dollars a year in 1932 might be protected in his wealth, no matter how he got it and no matter what the effect of too great individual accumulations of wealth on the final attainment of the purposes for which the soldiers of the Revolution fought and died."4 On the contrary, he argues that a cooperative economy is far more in line with American values than a capitalist one:

If the purpose of America is expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the stirring events of the Revolution and in the lives of the men who have made America great in the process of expressing that purpose, we may deduce from what we know of co-operation in the United States, buttressed by the greater experience abroad, that the normal development of the co-operative movement in America is in every way consistent with what we have been trying to develop of equality for all mankind from the very beginning of our national life.5

In addition to presenting an argument that still has relevance to contemporary co-operators some eighty years after it was written, We the People is also interesting in terms of what it reveals about its author. First, of all of Roy Bergengren's books, this is the one in which his religiosity most shows through. A devout Protestant, it is clear that his values and sense of social justice are heavily influenced by his faith. One of the book's early chapters is entitled "God and America," and religious references are peppered throughout the text. Indeed, when arguing for international cooperation, Bergengren notes that "God is an internationalist; He is not a Portuguese, nor a German, nor yet a Frenchman--nor an American, except as, in the conception of the Infinite we are all one people. He would just as soon that Germans shell His churches in Germany as shell His churches across an invisible line in France. Jesus Christ came to tell us of the brotherhood of man."6 His religious values are not exclusionary (at several places in the book he makes a point of noting valuable wisdom he'd received from Catholics and Jews), but We the People's discussions of religion make it clear that Bergengren's faith was a powerful motivating factor in his activism (indeed, throughout his career, he often referred to organizing credit unions as his "crusade").

A second insight that the book provides into the person of Bergengren is the nature of his political thought. Taken together, the various arguments he makes and positions he takes don't fall neatly within the boundaries of any one modern political category. In one section he rails against government corruption and bloat and calls for a reduction in its size and scope, while at other points he makes the case for certain economic regulations. Furthermore, he frets worriedly over the effects of cinema on American culture and that the practice of casually violating Prohibition was undermining the rule of law. Overall, the reader is left with the impression that Bergengren was an odd brew of conservatism, classical liberalism, and progressivism. In fact, he was clearly conscious of the outwardly confusing nature of his beliefs, and playfully asserts that self-awareness on his book's final page, when he notes that "young men will find my book, should they read it, the hopelessly old-fashioned, conservative product of an ancient day which, most fortunately, has gone forever. I read a few pages of the manuscript recently to a neighbor, a man of my own age, a good Republican and a member in good standing of the Congregational Church. He shook his gray head. 'I can't for the life of me understand, neighbor, where you get all of your radical notions,' he said."7

In sum, We the People comprises Roy Bergengren's most radical departure from his standard works. Intended as a philosophical exploration of the American economic crisis that was underway at the beginning of the 1930s, it ranges widely over a great many topics. Thus, for readers interested in the institutional history of the credit union movement, this book is far less important than Bergengren's memoirs or his "Credit Union Books" (as credit unions are only briefly discussed in We the People). However, for those who wish to understand the values that motivated the man who, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was one of the key figures in the growth of the credit union movement, this We the People is essential and fascinating reading.

1Bergengren, 3.
2Ibid., 70.
3Ibid., 151.
4Ibid., 368.
5Ibid., 396.
6Ibid., 320.
7Ibid., 404.

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