An American Insurgent

The sudden blare of a car horn, twenty-one years ago. That’s what I recalled last November, the moment I heard that Alfred Bingham had died. Bingham, one-time founder and publisher of Common Sense, literary home to a broad array of non-Marxian leftists during the Great Depression, had taken me on a tour of his family’s Salem, Connecticut farmlands, set within the rolling hills of the eastern portion of the state. I had come calling because I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the Bingham family, and was wide-eyed at the chance to visit the place many Bingham generations had called home. But most of our conversation was not about place but politics. The past and present melded easily, even eerily.

At one point, as Alfred drove his Chevy Nova along a winding, tree-lined road, he began to talk about his youngest brother, Jonathan, a staunchly liberal Democratic congressman from New York, whom he much admired. But as he addressed the book the two had written in 1970, Violence and Democracy, it became clear that the conversation was really about Alfred’s son, Stephen, a lawyer who had worked for the Black Panthers in the San Francisco Bay area, and who had disappeared in 1971 after being accused of smuggling a revolver into San Quentin Prison for George Jackson. The famed prisoner allegedly stuffed the pistol into a wig, then later used it in a courtroom escape attempt that had ended in his death. Stephen’s transformation from civil rights worker and Peace Corps volunteer to F.B.I. mugshot was a part of the devastating shift in contemporary leftist politics that Violence and Democracy had sharply, sorrowfully critiqued. In Alfred’s judgment, when in the late sixties organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society dropped their non-violent pursuit of “participatory democracy” and instead embraced a more revolutionary ethos, they cut themselves off from the mainstream, and thus from an opportunity to effect political change.

“Violence is the response of an elitist organization,” Alfred told me in the car, his voice rising in tone and intensity. “That’s what ruined it all.” His unconsciously hard grip on the wheel suddenly triggered the horn, startling us into silence.

In making audible the tension that partly defined his relationship with a then-absent son — Stephen Bingham would return to the United States in 1985 to stand trial and be acquitted — Alfred also gave voice to a family dynamic that had spanned five generations. Since the early nineteenth century, Binghams have committed themselves to public service, embroiled themselves in countless political contretemps, and contributed to the ongoing redefinition of the American mission — often at the expense of familial harmony. In 1819, Hiram Bingham leapt at the chance to leave his aged parents so he could unfurl the Lord’s banner in Hawaii, where the domineering Congregationalist held sway for twenty years. James Michener placed him at the heart of his 1959 novel Hawaii because, he told Alfred, he was “one of the most reprehensible great men in history.” That could not be said of the more-reclusive Hiram Bingham Jr., though he extended the American missionary impulse into the Central Pacific, serving in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). His son (yes, Hiram III) broke new ground. Resenting the poverty of piety, he married an heiress of the Tiffany fortune, and used these funds to explore the Peruvian highlands where he rediscovered the Incan ruins at Macchu Piccu. Later, he turned his celebrity into a political career, representing Connecticut as its U.S. senator in the twenties. An aggressive conservative, he denounced flapper liberalism and defended the American Imperium, but his personal life was in tatters; the revelation of his long-term affair with the wife of a congressman, and his censure by the Senate for less than ethical behavior, set the stage for Alfred to redeem the family’s honor.

Born in 1904, the third of seven sons, Alfred came of age in a “garden world” of commodious homes and private tutors; he was formally educated at Groton and Yale. He slowly awoke to the social inequities that marked the Roaring Twenties, when, during college vacations, he worked on farms and assembly lines. What he found was troubling: “factory labor made a travesty of human life,” he wrote, turning his co-workers into “companions in misery, victims of a great system which is crushing the best gift they have, their labor.” This insight, confirmed on an epic world tour in the early thirties, led him to a more complete renunciation of capitalism and the imperial state, a fall from orthodoxy Senator Bingham lambasted. Needling the patriarch was half the point: “I am tolerant of mother but not of father,” he wrote in his diary, because “mother’s faults are ingrained by long training, whereas father’s seem to be a product of the demoralization of politics; and I had hoped he would be a great man.”

That he wasn’t, liberated Alfred to make his own mark, through the publication of Common Sense. Founded in late 1932, and underwritten with family money — his now-divorced mother and maternal grandmother happily contributed — the new periodical sought to develop a native American radicalism; it promised to support “all movements that promise intelligent, courageous action, whether among labor organizations, unemployed councils, student leagues or political groups.” With a bow to Tom Paine, and indebted as well to later social critics such as Edward Bellamy and Thorstein Veblen, Bingham hoped to inaugurate a revolt of the middle classes. To soothe their insecurity in the midst of economic depression, to radicalize their politics in an age of fascism, he imagined a new nation, a Cooperative Commonwealth. Gone would be gritty factories, oppressive work, and sordid commercialism; instead, all would labor within a system of “production for use,” and live within a land of plenty. The transition to this new world would come not through armed revolt, but via a third party that tapped popular disgust with a corrupt political system.

It was not to be. Frustrated by the left’s internecine battles, outflanked (as everyone was) by FDR, Bingham drifted closer to the once-despised New Deal; by 1940, he ended his active editorship of Common Sense, moved back to Salem with his wife, Sylvia Knox, and there raised their children in that “gentle valley: a forgotten part of paradise.” Its beauty did not alter his sense of failure, but he became active in local politics, served one term as a state legislator, and slowly established a legal practice. More successful were his explorations of the problems of governance in the post-war world: in The United States of Europe (1940), he proposed the creation of a European community that has taken fifty years to come into being; Techniques of Democracy (1942) probed the dilemmas confronting his native land in the age of the corporate state, an issue that complicated the individual citizen’s place in the polity, and that lay at the core of The Practice of Idealism (1944). The political activist had become a public intellectual.

So he remained for the next forty-four years. Sitting on the national governing body of the A.C.L.U., providing legal counsel for various reform movements, marching at Vietnam peace demonstrations in the seventies and anti-nuclear protests in the eighties, fighting to preserve threatened environments — these small gestures were part of his life-long quest to build “a more perfect community.”

His communal vision clashed with the perfectionism of the New Left and the more radical means it embraced, one casualty of which was his relationship with son Stephen. But he never doubted Stephen’s innocence, when he was indicted on five counts of murder and conspiracy following the August 1971 San Quentin Prison melee, and Alfred poured much of his assets into defending his son when the celebrated case finally went to trial in 1986. Stephen’s victory closed a harrowing chapter in the family’s history.

The final years of Alfred’s life were marked by some physical struggle. “I can’t say I’m enjoying old age,” he wrote me in 1991. “I am 85 years old and feel I have lived too long.” Following major surgery that year, he allowed he “was more disappointed than pleased to be restored to health!” But the exclamation mark gives him away — he was too engaged by and fascinated with the human condition ever to turn his back on its conundrums. “Capitalism and socialism once appeared to me as opposing systems of economic and social order,” he observed in the final paragraph of his autobiography, The Tiffany Fortune (1996). “Now — we live in a world in which the two systems are inextricably linked. It is a far from perfect world. But it has been a good place to stretch my legs. I don’t blame myself for trying to improve it.”

Contributing writer Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University, and is the author of Fathers and Sons: The Bingham Family and the American Mission.

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Published at 12:00 am CST