Social Class and the Columbus, Indiana Success Story


I’ve written in the past about Columbus, Indiana and its patriarch, J. Irwin Miller. As I said in the Atlantic, Columbus is the Rust Belt city that never rusted. It’s basically the only small manufacturing city I know of in the Midwest that never went through a real decline period.

Columbus is the home of diesel engine giant Cummins Engine. Miller, its CEO, was extremely committed to his hometown, and invested heavily to ensure it was a place that could attract the kind of talent that would allow an engineering based company to survive there. He most famously paid the architect’s fees to bring in a who’s who of modern architects to design buildings there, including many schools and other public buildings. The American Institute of Architects ranks Columbus as the 6th best architectural destination in the country.

But the investments go beyond that. At the dedication of a public golf course in Columbus paid for by Cummins, Miller said:

“Why should an industrial company organized for profit think it a good and right thing to take $1 million and more of that profit and give it to this community in the form of this golf course and clubhouse? Why instead isn’t Cummins—the largest taxpayer in the country—spending the same energy to try to get its taxes reduced, the cost of education cut, the cost of city government cut, less money spent on streets and utilities and schools? The answer is that we should like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the best community of its size in the country.”

As you can tell, Miller was a liberal Republican of the old school type. People marinated in modern conservatism are indoctrinated to look back negatively at this group. And they of course had their flaws. But Miller shows that they had great advantages as well - ones that have not been replicated sense.

I want to tie the Miller-Cummins-Columbus story back to my article on the old WASP establishment. Social class is almost entirely missing from any analysis of the past today, but you can’t fully understand the past without it. Class is a key part of understanding Miller’s life and value system.

Miller was the fourth generation patriarch of the first family of Columbus, the Irwin-Sweeny-Miller family. They say a WASP is someone who’s first name is a last name. In Miller’s case, his middle name Irwin was an ancestral surname. So from birth, he was in a secure position as a scion of the highest status family in town. He had lots of both green money and blue blood. He did not have to spend decades climbing that greasy pole to get to the top. Being born at the top provides a reflexive security that no parvenu will ever possess. It also made him feel confident in his right to lead. Additionally, it meant he had the luxury of getting, from a very early age, a first class education. And as an adult to have access to America’s movers and shakers at the national level.

He represents a later version of the shift from a local to national upper class that E. Digby Baltzell had documented in Philadelphia Gentlemen. His generation was the first to be educated in the east rather than locally. He attended Taft School in Connecticut, and then Yale. Historically his family had been deeply tied to Butler University, which was associated with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) denomination. Multiple family members had been ministers in this denomination and/or taught at the school. Miller never left the Disciples church to become Episcopalian, but he did align himself with the Northeastern establishment.

Miller was on the board of AT&T, Yale, the Ford Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art. He served as the first lay president of the National Council of Churches. In that role, he played a key role in promoting the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He ensured that Cummins was among the first companies to divest from South Africa over apartheid.

Miller makes multiple appearances in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book The Guardians about several key figures in the last generation of the WASP establishment. It would appear that he was one of the few WASP grandees who still ran a major family controlled business. Most of the rest were living off trust funds.

In 1967, Esquire magazine featured Miller on its cover, with the caption, “This man ought to be the next president of the United States.” The article, after a long preamble bemoaning the choices on offer in the 1968 election, is a fascinating interview with Miller.

Read the rest of this piece at: Heartland Intelligence.

Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker and writer on a mission to help America’s cities and people thrive and find real success in the 21st century. He focuses on urban, economic development and infrastructure policy in the greater American Midwest. He also regularly contributes to and is cited by national and global media outlets, and his work has appeared in many publications, including the The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Photo: by Don Nissen, the former Republic newspaper office, Myron Goldsmith, architect National Historic Landmark, via Flickr under CC 4.0 License.