One of the most comforting images we have inherited from the nineteenth century is of authority: a sentimental picture of a kindly father, superimposed on the face of a boss or a political leader. This notion of authority was based on paternalism of a literal kind—the paternalism of fathers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were, in effect, the bosses of farms and businesses run as family enterprises. But in the more fragmented and disorderly families of the nineteenth century, few fathers had such secure control over either their children’s work or their behavior. This did not change people’s need to imagine fathers as benevolent authorities; nor did it prevent such desires from being converted into metaphors of the leader as a father, and the boss as a father. These new images, based more on longings than on the realities of social or economic life, concealed the fact that employers were anything but protective and loving in their relations with their employees.

The history of paternalism in the nineteenth century is pervaded by disappointment and confusion. When people looked to their employers for the guidance they once received from their fathers, and didn’t get it, they found their idea of the authority figure had to change. But no new image of authority was clearly suggested by this disappointment. Under modern industrial conditions, what a boy learns about his father’s protectiveness is not what a young adult learns about a boss. Relations at work are hardly a natural extension of relations in the family. As a child leaves the family, he or she can only see the primary relationships there reflected in work or politics as in a distorting mirror. This distorting mirror of authority is a legacy from the last century which still troubles our society.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century workhouses, asylums, and prisons were described in paternalistic imagery more frequently than were factories. These corrective institutions not only punished their inmates but also attempted to “reform” their characters—a duty that the institutions claimed for themselves “in loco parentis.” It was believed that there were certain moral diseases which the normal family was too weak to cope with: insanity, sexual perversion, and the like. Other diseases, it was thought, were caused by abnormal family life: indolence, “despairing alcoholism,” prostitution. Moreover, it was assumed that if the authority which replaced the parent were to succeed where the natural parent failed, the liberty of the person being treated would have to be radically curtailed.

In the famous Panopticon model prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the cells are arranged in a circle around a central observation tower, so that the inmates can be constantly observed by doctors, workhouse managers, or prison guards. The inmates cannot talk to each other, nor can they see whether the guards are observing them, since Bentham designed an ingenious set of louvers and blinds for the central guard tower. (The plan of the Panopticon, published in 1843, was later used in the building of such institutions as the Rennes Prison in 1877 and the American federal penitentiary of Statesville in the early twentieth century.) This design was the purest application of the principle that the people in command should always be in a position to oversee, anticipate, and discipline the movements of those in their charge. In such a setting for moral reform, the factory foreman or prison official acquires far more power than the natural parent, and nurturance is replaced by one-sided control: the subject is influenced but cannot approach or influence those who are taking care of him or her.

The first attempts of industrial bosses to act in loco parentis to their workers were considerably less harsh than these corrective schemes; they were concerned to protect rather than reform the people in their charge. In the United States in the 1820s, there was great resistance to the building of large factories—a resistance that owed much to the Jeffersonian idea that the immorality commonly associated with European poverty would be imported to America if its agricultural economy were supplanted by industrialism. In order to convince Americans that industrialism was not necessarily a source of corruption, the industrialists who built the mills in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts, designed industrial communities in which older, “wholesome” values would be carefully preserved. The workers in these experimental communities were young women recruited to work in the mills for only a few years; they were expected to save money, and to leave the mills when they found a suitable husband. Unlike Robert Owen in his experimental factory at New Lanark in Scotland, these American entrepreneurs had no thought of morally reforming the lives of the young women they employed by introducing them to standards very different from those of their families. They hoped mainly to encourage the values that most Americans associated with the traditional farm family, and so to rob industrialism of its sting.


To this end, the industrialists who planned the Waltham mills arranged that reading groups, lectures, and Bible classes would be held for the workers in the evenings. They provided the first comprehensive health care program in this country for their employees. And acting in loco parentis, the owners of these factories undertook to protect the morality of the young girls who worked there by building dormitories for them—dormitories supervised by matrons who were on duty from the time the girls returned from the mills until they left for work in the morning. In the design and operation of the dormitories, however, the authoritarian control of Bentham’s Panopticon reappears in fact, if not by intention. The dormitories were long, high-ceilinged rooms where the beds were arranged as in a hospital ward. The matrons were on duty in these rooms even while the young women slept; not only did they protect the girls from intruders, they also kept them from escaping. The young men who came to visit them had to make appointments that were timed and supervised by the matrons, and there was no question of allowing privacy for courtship or sex. In the institutional setting of the mill, the matrons acted as surrogate parents, controlling the lives of the working girls much more strictly than their natural parents would have done.

The Panopticon, New Lanark, the Waltham mills were all conceived against the grain of nineteenth-century values which placed great emphasis on the individual. They all attempted to create a community. Tough-minded businessmen criticized these early versions of paternalism as costly, idealistic, unnecessary. But by the end of the last century, such schemes had been absorbed into the economy in ways that made them profitable. Large company towns were built throughout eastern America from Hershey, Pennsylvania, to Cincinnati, Ohio;1 several factory owners built large complexes around Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds that included housing for workers as well as the plants themselves; in the suburban developments around Paris and Lyon, industrialists began to invest in real estate development and to buy retail stores at which their employees shopped.

Like the Waltham factory owners, these industrialists were concerned to provide community services for their workers, but unlike those in Waltham, they argued openly that these services were morally valuable because happy workers were more productive and less likely to strike than unhappy ones. The corporate paternalists tried to bring together family life and factory work by creating images of themselves as benevolent authorities. They wanted a secure chain of command over this stable community of workers, from whom they could obtain higher rates of productivity.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of an employer seeking to become the leader of a paternalistic community was that of George Pullman, president of the Pullman Palace Car Company based in Pullman, Illinois. His efforts ended in disaster, showing the peculiar hazards to which paternalistic social organization and personal authority were subject in industrial society. On May 12, 1894, Pullman’s workers began a strike that lasted for three months. Before it was over it spread from the suburb on the south side of Chicago where the Pullman works were located to other cities throughout the US. This was the first attempt by American workers to call a general strike and one of the first times federal troops were used on a large scale to put down civil disorder.

Before the strike Pullman was thought to be one of the most successful of the company towns then being built in America, and Pullman was thought of as a superior employer, combining something of the idealism of the Saint-Simonians with an almost machine-like capacity to ccoordinate a large-scale organization. Nationally, the Pullman Palace Car Company had 14,000 employees, of whom 5,500 worked in the town. By the time of the strike, Pullman had built housing for 12,600 people. Their lives were rigidly controlled, far more so than in other company towns of the era: alcohol was banned in the stores and the town inn, both of which were owned by Pullman. There were also rules on cigarette smoking and a curfew.

More important, perhaps, no worker was allowed to buy his own house, since this would weaken Pullman’s control. In 1890 he told a visitor:

It is truly my intention to form another town, near this one, where each resident will build a cottage after his own inclination, suited to his own needs, and which will be his own…. I do not think the time has come yet for beginning this enterprise. If I had sold the sites to my workingmen at the beginning of the experiment, I should have run the risk of seeing families settle who are not sufficiently accustomed to the habits I wish to develop in the inhabitants of Pullman city, and all the good of my work would have been compromised by their presence. But today, after ten-years’ apprenticeship, several families recognize the advantages of them and will see that they are observed, wherever they may settle. Such families form the pick, and I hope to sell the building lands near the workshops to some of them, little by little. [Italics added]

This attitude many of Pullman’s workers at first seemed to understand and approve. They were mostly immigrants, largely Swedish and northern German peasants who found Pullman’s patrimonial assumptions not all that different from the protective control of the European landowners they had once worked for. For such immigrants Pullman seemed to offer material and emotional protection. This small Illinois town offered them the security of order in the chaos of American society.


Its protective features appealed as well to native-born Americans, who were having a hard time in the new industrial towns. A farm boy who moved first to Chicago and then to Pullman explained:

We had a little cottage on the west side [of Chicago] but there was mud on all sides of us, two beer saloons within a block, clouds of soft coal, poor sewerage, villainous water, and everything else that was bad and disagreeable…. There were many deaths in our section of the city from diphtheria and scarlet fever, and we found it next to impossible to keep everything clean…. I found I could work here [in Pullman] at wages fully equal to those paid in the city, and that I could rent a whole brick house with water and drainage…for $15 a month…. We have a clean and comfortable house and plenty of pure air. My children are healthy and, as far as my wife, she has seemed like a different woman.

But if Pullman’s industrial community gave the workers who lived there protection and security—and was profitable to boot—why did one of the most dramatic strikes in the history of American capitalism occur there?

First, Pullman was an unstable community of temporary residents. The journalist Richard Ely observed that “nobody regards Pullman as a real home.” One resident told him “that she had been in Pullman two years, and that there were only three families among her acquaintances who were there when she came.” When he asked, “It is like living in a great hotel, is it not?” she replied, “We call it camping out.” The more industrious workers at Pullman’s works bought houses outside the community as soon as they could; the “good children” escaped his control, since they wanted to own their own houses, and he refused to give up his paternal power by selling them the houses he had built. Those who remained in Pullman were people who, for one reason or another, could not save the capital for their own homes; they tended to resent the more successful workers who had moved out and the company which refused to convert their rent payments into an equity investment.

Pullman had not anticipated that his foreign workers would regard owning private property as so important. They did so not only because ownership provided material security, but also because it was a symbol of their being assimilated in the new culture. George Pullman found that he could control the physical conditions in the community he built and the lives of the workers who stayed there only so long as he kept them from owning their own homes. Private property threatened the paternalistic control of this successful capitalist.

But there was another reason for the Pullman strike. Paternalism can make the relations between employers and employees intensely personal and fragile. The employer promises to care about the worker, to protect him from dangers of every sort—a potentially dangerous formula. When things go wrong, few workers blame the competition, the market, the economy. They blame the boss and hold him personally responsible. The leader of the Pullman strikers, Thomas Heathcoate, remarked after the strike: “The employees were very well disposed toward Mr. Pullman until the action of the last management [i.e., the shop foremen several removes from Pullman in the hierarchy of the company] seemed to estrange the men from Mr. Pullman.”

Since Pullman had assumed personal responsibility for the lives of his employees, he was blamed for all the faults of his managers and foremen and for the fluctuations in the national economy itself—such as the changes in demand which require temporary layoffs. Economic difficulties tended to become occasions for explosive discharges of feeling. One Pullman worker remarked of his immediate boss, “The treatment we have received from the foreman of the company has been worse than the slaves ever received in the South.”

In her essay “A Modern Lear,” published in 1912, Jane Addams wrote what remains the most astute analysis of Pullman’s paternalism.2 Comparing his authority to that of King Lear, she suggests that the arrogant benevolence of both men invited rejection, Lear at the hands of his daughters, Pullman at the hands of his workers. And she tries to understand why in the industrial world rebellious workers do not create a new order to take the place of their surrogate parents, but instead become ever more rebellious, as if for rebellion’s sake.

In a paternal relationship, one person is authorized to control other people’s lives. Writing of Lear, Addams suggests that “it was impossible for him to calmly watch his child developing beyond the strength of his own mind and sympathy.” When Cordelia rebels against his control,

It was new to him that his child should be moved by a principle outside of himself, which even his imagination could not follow; that she had caught the notion of an existence so vast that her relationship as a daughter was but part of it.

It is a similar desire for control over the lives of others that led Pullman to dictate when his workers could be on the streets, why they could not drink alcohol, even how they should dress.

Both Lear and Pullman also expected their charges to show their gratitude by being obedient and deferential. Here the comparison between an industrialist and an ordinary father—not a father like Lear—breaks down, for ordinary fathers rarely make such one-sided demands on their children. As Jane Addams points out, Lear knows that in giving away his kingdom before he has to, he is acting “beyond his measure” as a father. In much the same way, Pullman

had heaped extraordinary benefits upon those toward whom he had no duty recognized by common consent…, had not only exceeded the righteousness of the employer, but…had worked out original and striking methods for lavishing goodness and generosity….

Indeed, she observes, he “had at one time imperiled his business reputation for the sake of the benefactions of his town.” Both men had gone “beyond the measure” of duty or law. And it was because Pullman did far more than was necessary that people described him as a paternal boss.

Addams leaves the reader with images of Lear as a father given to acting “beyond measure” and of Pullman making excessive efforts as a boss in order to be seen as a father. Her essay suggests how, in associating the ideas of “father” and “boss,” paternalism magnifies the scale and power of both terms. In the asylums or reformatories built during the earlier part of the century—in Bentham’s Panopticon, in the factories of Lowell and Waltham—the parental control of the guards and foremen was inflated in ways that wrenched personal relations out of any natural measure. The paternalistic exaggeration of parental authority cannot be explained by what psychoanalysts call the “mirror assumption”—the view that larger social relationships mirror the primary erotic, aggressive, or other relationships within the family. The exercise of authority in loco parentis and the boss’s fatherly manner distort our natural concept of a father, exaggerating the egoistic benevolence which almost always is associated with being a father, but which actual fathers soon learn has definite limits.

In Bentham’s Panopticon, those in the central tower are given extraordinary powers over their charges in order to reform them, to do them some good. But the charges cannot speak to their masters, cannot even see them. In Pullman’s town, the workers were not allowed to own property, so that they would not challenge their employer while he did his good works. This is egoistic benevolence, magnified far beyond what is usual in family life. As the paternal relation is magnified, it becomes distorted since only certain elements are blown up in scale. This is why Addams’s comparison of Pullman to Lear is more apt than if she had compared him to a man who would expect not only deference from his children but also a measure of independence.

Paternalism is not, then, a simple or straightforward comparison of a father’s authority with that of kings, union leaders, or bosses. And the feelings, such as shame, aroused by a paternal figure are correspondingly more complicated than the feelings aroused by a father. A boy does not need to be ashamed of himself when he obeys his father. But when outsiders like Richard Ely criticized the social life of Pullman, Illinois, they often implied that it was shameful that one man would treat others as if he were their father. This is quite different from the assumptions made in the traditional patriarchal or patrimonial kind of society that was disappearing by the beginning of the nineteenth century. One adult obeying another in these societies was usually no more shameful than a child obeying its parent. In the same way, within the family, a father will not necessarily feel humiliated when his children challenge him; he may in fact be pleased they have the guts to stand up to him. But the paternalist factory owner feels exposed when his authority is challenged; Pullman worried that he could not hold his head up in the business community after the workers went on strike.

Exaggerated and self-serving benevolence, combined with humiliating demands for obedience: it may appear that paternalism is wholly a matter of malign intent. But this is to miss the pathos of Pullman’s paternalism. Throughout the nineteenth century, Pullman and others like him tried to encourage warm personal relations and the values of a closely knit community in an economic system that depended on individual striving and competition. Taking the family as their model, rather than the church or the military, they hoped to make their relations intimate and protective. But these relations were perverted by the conditions of economic power that gave the paternalist image its shape. When Pullman’s workers went out on strike, they were responding to the form that his power took, not to his motives. They had to reject his benevolence if they were not to become abjectly dependent on him.

Most people today have some sympathy with workers striking to improve their economic situation, and can understand their impulse to challenge paternal authority. But, as Addams suggests, relations that could be valuable were broken when the workers went out on strike. Setting themselves against the boss, the workers began to look out only for their own interests. Addams compares “the barbaric, the incredible scenes of bitterness and murder, which were King Lear’s portion” to “the barbaric scenes in our political and industrial relationships, when the sense of possession, to obtain and to hold, is aroused on both sides.” Although they rejected Pullman’s authority, the workers did not transcend his values: “possession” was still the ruling term. They had no vision of a better social order, or a more truly responsive authority, a better authority. One worker who lived in Pullman during the 1880s recalled,

After the strike was over I went back to the Sleeping Palace works. They still came around, you know, the socialists, trying to start things up again. The Debs men. [Eugene Debs, the leading American socialist, was involved in organizing workers during the Pullman strike.] They told us Pullman was a fox, he’d tricked us. But I was through with the whole thing. I believed Pullman once, why should I believe in Debs?

The socialists were no more able to convince the workers that Pullman was a fox than Pullman was able to command the authority of a father. Learning to disbelieve, per se, is what the workers took away from their experience in Pullman’s town. Angry with Pullman’s fatherly pretensions, they rejected authority of any kind.

Paternalism is something more than a temporary phase in the history of capitalism. The fate of this image of authority in the modern world is ironic, for it has passed into the language of revolutionary socialism used first by Soviet leaders in the 1920s and then by other socialist regimes. Although the Marxist program for remaking society aimed to eliminate what Engels called the “magical presences” of the authorities who rule in loco parentis, Stalin was George Pullman’s true ideological heir; in Stalin’s own words, “The state is a family, and I am your father.” The authority Bentham and others intended for capitalist bureaucracies was expropriated by the enemy of capitalism.

Stalin and other dictators use the language of paternalism to protect the revolutionary claim that a fundamental change has occurred in the structure of society. A dangerous claim, for what happens if something goes wrong afterward? In Stalin’s Russia it was safe to notice bureaucratic inefficiency or failure; it was dangerous to notice something in the structure of the bureaucracy—that is, the structure of state power—which caused the failure to occur.

In order to avoid challenging this first principle, bureaucratic failure was and is laid at the door of individual bureaucrats. This is the key to the place of personality in all totalitarian regimes. Since it is dangerous to see connections between government inefficiency and the structure of the state, disasters are explained by the personal failings of leaders, as when Hess’s defection was thought by loyal Nazis to explain why Germany began losing the war, and when the Gang of Four was blamed for the recent problems of Chinese socialism. Conversely, when all is going well, the leader’s personal authority is celebrated. His picture appears in every office and schoolroom, incarnating appeals for higher production or reorganization of the cement industry. This is power with a distinctly human face. When the pictures are removed from offices, factories, and schools, the people know what went wrong: the leader did. He failed to live up to the revolutionary ideals, but the revolution remains intact.

In Western industrial societies, paternalism persists not only in corporations like IBM but also in politics: in the language of leaders like Carter who claim to reach over the heads of the bureaucracy to establish personal relations with the people. The government is cast as the common enemy of the aspiring president and people alike—an antagonism that often continues after the leader takes office. He promises to care for the people personally as the formal machinery of the welfare state cannot. Thus, like the industrialists of the nineteenth century, he extends his seemingly benevolent authority “beyond the natural measure” of his office. He and his family implicitly claim to set a moral example in the fashion of parents. And the leader often tries to absolve himself from responsibility for the less popular policies of his government, which are carried out by the bureaucracy.

But this modern political paternalism can be as dangerous as Pullman’s exaggerated personal authority. Such a president often encourages excessive expectations on the part of the public—expectations that often cannot be made good, in view of the division of power in American society, including the contest between the different branches of government. When he cannot uphold his claims, his disappointed followers may turn to another paternalistic leader, who also makes unrealistic promises to reorder society, say, or to protect them from economic hardships. Or they may be so disillusioned that, like Pullman’s workers, they reject authority of all kinds.

But the question remains whether the dangers of paternalism can be exposed and avoided. Paternalism is a deceptive metaphor about the protective qualities of power, but it also expresses a real human need. We cannot do without qualities like trust or empathy in power relations. Can public figures learn to make their intentions plainly visible to their subjects? Can government officials be persuaded to state clearly what they can and cannot do? Can they be explicit about their promises, and about the obstacles to carrying them out? This is how trust between the powerful and the subordinate might be established; it is how truly legitimate authority might be created. Finding the perfect leader is the wrong answer to these questions. The perfect leader is only Pullman in modern dress. A more flexible structure of power is required instead. Only then will people be able to question and to negotiate with their leaders, to make realistic choices about what their governments should and should not be empowered to do. Should we ever be able to cast off the damaging illusions of paternalism, this would be the hard and often bitter work of democracy.

This Issue

May 1, 1980