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Columbia Journalism ReviewFried shows the extent of Barton’s true influence . . . as a pioneer in modern political advertising.
— James Boylan
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Everyone knew him then: Bruce Barton was a cultural icon. Two-thirds of American history textbooks today cite him to illustrate the 1920s adoration of the business mentality that then dominated American culture. Historians quote from his enormous best-seller, The Man Nobody Knows, in which Barton called Jesus the "founder of modern business" who "picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." But few know Bruce Barton now: he is the most famous twentieth-century American not to rate a biography. Richard M. Fried's compelling new study captures the full dimensions of Barton's varied and fascinating life. More than a popularizer of the entrepreneurial Jesus, he was a prolific writer—of novels, magazine articles, interviews with the mighty, pithy editorials of uplift. He edited a weekly magazine that anticipated the format of Life. Most famously, he co-founded the advertising agency that became Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn and grew to symbolize "Madison Avenue." He made GM and GE household initials. Barton's religious writings, especially The Man Nobody Knows, epitomized modernist religious thought in the twenties—at one point he had two religious books on the best-seller list. As a political spin merchant, he advanced the careers of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover; his agency scripted later campaigns for Republicans, notably Dwight Eisenhower. Barton himself was twice elected to Congress, ran for the U.S. Senate in 1940, and that year lent his name to FDR's famous mocking litany, "Martin, Barton, and Fish." In Richard M. Fried's illuminating biography, Barton comes to life as a man who often initiated, sometimes followed, and occasionally fought the social and political trends of his times—but always defined their essential qualities. He can truly be called a key figure in a large territory of the American mind. With 8 pages of black-and-white photographs.
WHEN BRUCE BARTON was born in Robbins, Tennessee, August 5, 1886, his father's family had been established on American shores for a little more than a century. On his mother's side, his line could be traced to early colonial Connecticut, to Francis Bushnell, signer of the Guilford, Connecticut, covenant, to John Davenport, founder of New Haven, to Governor Robert Treat, who had hidden Connecticut's charter in the famous Charter Oak, and to the first president of Yale.
Barton's paternal great-great-grandfather was William Barton (1754-1829), son of a British soldier James Barton, who was killed in the French and Indian War. After also joining the British army, William was sent to North America during the Revolution. He pulled out of Boston with General William Howe, fought on Long Island, and campaigned up the Hudson River. But he came gradually to sense that he was enlisted in "the wrong army," one which his descendant Bruce Barton later described as pursuing "a mission of Bureaucratic Uplift." Grabbing a bucket on the pretext of fetching water one day, Barton strode toward the river. An officer ordered him back to camp; his refusal earned a nasty sword swipe that would leave a scar across his face. Striking back with his bucket, Barton unhorsed his superior, seizedhis sword and made his way across the Hudson. Welcomed into the Continental Army, he rose to the rank of lieutenant. While manufacturing cannon shot for the Americans in New Jersey, he met Margaret Henderson and married her after three weeks' courtship. The British officer's sword that William Barton made off with would become a treasured family heirloom. Archibald M. Willard, the artist whose Spirit of '76 later became the central iconic representation of the patriot cause, also painted a canvas depicting the bucket-wielding Barton's confrontation with the redcoat officer.
The Bartons' son Eleazar lived in New Jersey, but when two of his sons returned from the West with tidings of the prosperous hinterland, the family packed its belongings, took a ferry up the Hudson, traversed the Erie Canal, crossed the Great Lakes by steamboat, and arrived in Chicago. From there they headed west, in three days reaching Knox Grove, Illinois. There in 1846 the extensive Barton family settled.
Among Eleazar's ten sons was Jacob B. Barton (1834-1912), who had made the trip west as a boy. At sixteen Jacob suffered a severe case of pneumonia. A doctor's role in his recovery stimulated an interest in the healing arts and led Jacob to read medicine at this village practitioner's office. He returned to Knox Grove where he taught school, practiced medicine, and compounded remedies that he sold from his wagon to farmers in the surrounding countryside. Moving to Sublette, just four miles away, he opened a drug store. As other doctors came into the area, they asked Jacob Barton to fill their prescriptions; in turn, he all but gave up practicing medicine. Neither of these pursuits enriched him. In his own prime, Bruce Barton recalled his grandfather as "a kindly old country doctor and druggist, who brought babies into the world for whose arrival he was never paid, and passed out his healing drugs to the suffering but could never quite bring himself to insist that his bills be promptly met." To make ends meet, Jacob also took on the postmastership and installed two printing presses. Soon his store was crammed with drugs, printing gear, arriving and departing mail, and many of Sublette's 350 or so townspeople who were looking for one or another of these services.
In 1860 Jacob Barton married Helen Methven. Her father, a farmer and preacher, had emigrated from Scotland in 1837, the rest of his family soon following. In a room above the store, William Eleazar Barton was born on June 28, 1861. William, who became Bruce Barton's father, would have a powerful influence on his famous son and no small fame of his own. Although it would not be long before William left his rural youth behind, it would carry well into the next generation. Bruce Barton had little actual experience in such circumstances, but he would always idealize his adolescence as that of a "small-town boy." Other observers noticed the pattern this distant past had etched on Barton. In an obituary, Alistair Cooke, the astute English observer of the American scene, called Barton "a rampant individualist and frontier Republican to the day he died."
By the mid-nineteenth century the frontier had passed the town of Sublette. Once scene of a skirmish in the Blackhawk War, now it was "civilized" though still raw. Its homespun generosity was evidenced near the end of the Civil War, when the Barton family cow died. The Baptist preacher took up a subscription to replace it-even if the Bartons attended the Methodist church. Yet when the worm of politics turned and the Democrats took over, neighborliness did not prevent Jacob Barton from losing his postmastership and, amid the ravages of the Panic of 1873, with it the underpinnings of his store's and his family's prosperity, such as it was. Foresightedly he had bought thirteen acres of fertile land, which saw the Bartons through on a reduced scale.
Perched above the watersheds of the Rock and Illinois rivers, the town had a railroad running through it, though it never became a major way point. The railroad meant progress, but the rough-and-tumble was seldom far away. As a young lad William himself had once leaped aboard a runaway boxcar, tightening down the brake wheel before the car plunged down the sloping track into an oncoming locomotive. In 1877 a secretive couple summered in Sublette; afterward William Barton wondered if this might have been the bandit Frank James, recuperating after the Northfield, Minnesota, raid, and his wife.
Sublette's social and intellectual life centered in its surfeit of churches. In tiny congregations, their members stretched to acquire missing skills. William Barton's sister learned to play a "little cabinet organ" as a child, and he himself was of tender years when he "began taking, in emergencies, the place of an absent Sunday School teacher." The church was so often without a minister that sometimes his uncle or father filled in with a sermon, "usually one by Henry Ward Beecher." His father held a license to preach, and though he did not pastor a church, he sometimes conducted small neighborhood services and funerals.
Despite thin academic resources, learning was cherished in Sublette, acquired through personal effort more than institutional matriculation. Jacob Barton often "mourned" the limits of his formal education. He was interested in religion and history and owned books on law. (He was also a notary public.) His family read novels and poetry aloud together. Books traveled much from hand to hand, and townspeople often disputed theological and other topics. Outside lecturers and performers passed through. The Bartons opposed theatergoing but, as foes of slavery, made an exception when Uncle Tom's Cabin was staged. Despite Sublette's rough finish, William Barton's memoir offers tastes of simple sweetness that dominate more tart and painful rural experiences. Barton reminisced of one deep childhood friend: "Seraphine, you happy, resourceful, versatile girl; we liked each other and that was all there was of it." At her death "it was your longtime friend who conducted your funeral service." Small-town life peeps through in a far less gothic manner than from the pages of Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters's bittersweet poetic evocation of another Illinois town.
Yet for the long term Sublette would not do for William Barton. When he finished high school in 1878 at age sixteen, the prospect he saw ahead was a life in farming, the family's current mainstay. The limits of this horizon and a yearning for more education stirred quiet revolt in a youth who thought of himself as "saucy" but whose makeup was far from rebellious. Still, in June 1878 he packed his few belongings in a pair of boots and stole forth as a "tramp." He walked and hitchhiked a mere forty miles and one county north, to Stillman Valley. His whereabouts unknown to his family, he supported himself with farm work. Attending school through the winter, he dreamed of college. Uncle Bruce Hunting, from the Methven side, who was minister of Sublette's Congregational church (which William had joined in his teens), had told him about the school at which he taught, Berea College. The Kentucky institution, geared to the needs of poor students of its mountain surroundings, enabled them to work their way through by performing tasks in the college's upkeep.
William returned to Sublette. His father, reconciled and supportive of his ambition, sent him off with his sister Mary to Berea. They arrived in December 1880 with $16 between them. Tuition was only $3 a term, but even with work by spring they were $15.65 in debt. William taught school over the summer, trekking seventy miles into the mountains. He did well, though one parent, recoiling from young Barton's teaching that the Earth was round, pulled his son from school. There would be more summer and Sunday school teaching, two summers spent selling books, and some preaching as a "lay brother." At Berea, William also met a primary school teacher named Esther Treat Bushnell, from Ohio. They shared literary interests, spent increasing amounts of time together, and in July 1885 were married. Casting up the simplicity of his parents' lives, their nobility of mind and religious faith, their son Bruce would later declare: "I regard them as the happiest and most successful people I have ever known."
In his senior year William E. Barton, who had envisioned himself as a lawyer and statesman, changed his mind and decided to enter the ministry. He had an invitation to preach as a home missionary employed by the American Missionary Association. Although he had been a fun-loving undergraduate, Barton's seniors and contemporaries thought him a good fit for the ministry: he took some rushed lessons in theology and accepted the call. The president and other Berea faculty laid on hands in June 1885, and so he was ordained. Berea would continue to occupy an important place in the Barton family's affections.
The Bartons embarked for Robbins, Tennessee, where William was to ride circuit and conduct mission work on a salary of $800 a year, thus launching a lifetime of preaching. He rode a white mare to visit seven churches in mountain country. On August 5, 1886, William and Esther's first child, Bruce, was born. Robbins was home for two happy, rewarding years, but William felt the need for deeper theological training: in 1887 the family departed for Ohio's Oberlin Theological Seminary. Robbins had provided two more additions to their household. At a sawmill, Reverend Barton chanced upon an abandoned mulatto boy of undetermined years (they assigned an age of twelve). They took Webster Beatty in, raised him as a member of the family, and provided an education that led him into the dental profession. They also were joined by Rebecca, a young African-American girl whose mother asked them to raise her. From the train station to their little house in Oberlin in the fall of 1887, they formed an eye-turning procession: Webster leading the horse on which Esther rode cradling Bruce, Becky leading the cow, and William following on the sidewalk.
In Oberlin they stayed until William Barton received his degree in May 1890. Their family gained a second son, Charles William Barton, in 1887, and a daughter, Helen, in 1889. William preached at a small church and lectured to support his growing family. After graduation he accepted a call from a church in Wellington, Ohio. Another son, Frederick Bushnell Barton, was born during the three years spent there. Reverend Barton's career soared in 1893 when he received a call to become minister of Boston's Shawmut Church. (In Boston in the following year their fourth son Robert Shawmut Barton was born.)
Boston was a long way from Sublette. The pastor of a prominent Congregational church in the city that spawned many of the nation's good causes and much of its intellectual life in the nineteenth century, Barton associated with a range of notables and numbered as friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Edward Everett Hale, and Julia Ward Howe, each a figure touched with Civil War-era renown. He became a vice president of the American Peace Society. At the close of a heated public debate before the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions over a fine point of disputed religious doctrine, Barton made a brief conciliating speech that won applause, publicity in the local papers, and renown for the young minister. It showed Barton's characteristic impatience with doctrinal quarrels.
Although the expenses living in Boston imposed on a minister's salary were high, the Bartons managed to buy a cottage in nearby Foxboro, which, after repairs and the addition of more buildings and acreage, eventually included a small lake and became the family's summer vacation home for many years. The Bartons soon webbed themselves into the hamlet's life. Reverend Barton would offer the memorial address on the town common marking the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Foxboro was an antidote to the stresses and costs of city living, which proved wearing on Barton; his son Fred recalled that in Boston his father was sometimes "nervous and unwell." Bruce would later share these symptoms and claimed similar relief in communing with nature as Foxboro defined it.
William Barton's growing reputation brought the offer of several new pulpits (including the one Jonathan Edwards had held in Northampton, Massachusetts). The call to become pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oak Park, Illinois, proved more attractive. Barton was not eager to move but was persuaded that he could solve the challenge of reuniting a riven congregation. In Boston he had acquired some repute as a scholar of history. He lectured widely and his writings included stories as well as small historical contributions. When he announced his departure for Oak Park, some of his Shawmut congregants were moved to tears. The redoubtable Edward Everett Hale joked at his pleasure in not having to play "second fiddle" now that this rival authority on the history of Boston and New England was leaving.
When the Bartons moved to Oak Park in 1899, they arrived not in a village, for the political subdivision of that name would not be established for another two years. Oak Park was a locality whose name was attached officially only to a post office and a railroad station; it also had a school district. But the area was still a political dependency of Cicero Township, with a population of nine thousand. Well supplied with rapid rail transport, building lots, and busy housing developers, the community was blossoming as a bedroom suburb just west of Chicago. It became a place of middle-class (and sometimes higher) comfort, though at least as late as 1907 the community was vexed by a scare over typhoid. By the end of Reverend Barton's twenty-five-year pastorate, it would grow to encompass nearly sixty thousand souls.
Like similar communities at the turn of the twentieth century, Oak Park faced a number of challenges. It often identified itself as a residential and moral sanctuary from the social problems and moral laxity of the Windy City. The community's early nickname was "Saints' Rest." When the Bartons arrived, Oak Parkers were struggling to set themselves apart from the Gomorrah to their east. In a series of elections they managed to achieve separation from Cicero, incorporation as a village, and the expulsion of Austin, their unloved neighbor to the east, into the maw of Chicago. They also managed to maintain temperance, prevent the showing of movies on Sunday (until 1932), and constrain the building of apartments in favor of single-family homes, even as the population of their village doubled from 1900 to 1910 and doubled again in the next decade.
Conflicts between the forces of restraint, both self-imposed and mandated by the community, and those pressing for release and hedonism were playing out in thousands of localities and millions of individual minds in early-twentieth-century America. Oak Park was a way station not only between the metropolis and the great agricultural hinterland but between an older, small-town, individualistic, church-led, producer-oriented ethos and a metropolitan, consumption-driven, corporate society. Alert to the changes roiling their world, Oak Park parents sought to bring up their children to cope with them. They spun a dense network of institutions in which to shape their offspring: schools, churches, the YMCA, and local clubs to afford wholesome leisure activities for their children and socialize their sons into a corporate world. Bruce Barton, who remembered his Oak Park years fondly, had little to say about the impress of the more elaborate of these institutional niches, the clubs. His own lively home, the extended family of his father's congregation, his high school, and his youthful work experiences were the formative frame he identified. Clearly he imbibed the modern, corporate sociability that fathers sought to hand on to their sons, and also the reasserted (and redefined) masculinity cultivated in the suburb. Yet in his memory home was something simpler, a typical small town-"a country town," as he once put it.
Excerpted from The Man Everybody Knew by Richard M. Fried Copyright © 2005 by Richard M. Fried. Excerpted by permission.
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