Unforeseen Consequences

Mark Tenney

Wealth and legacy.
Over the next 50 years, the United States will experience a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth, with the assets passing from one generation to another estimated at more than $40 trillion. For those on the giving or receiving end, it’s wise to remember Robert K. Merton’s influential 1936 article “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” Merton popularized the idea of unforeseen or unintended outcomes, which cannot always be avoided but might be alleviated.

If Merton popularized the idea, Wedgwood wealth is a prototype. The fortune earned as Britain’s maker of fine china contributed to two dramatically different outcomes. The first was intentional – startling the world with a new image of the slave trade. The second was unintentional – sponsoring Charles Darwin. These two legacies were earned over 100 years, from 1759 to 1859.

1759 was the year of William Wilberforce’s birth and Wedgwood’s beginning. By the late 1780s, the Clapham circle enlisted Josiah Wedgwood I to make a plate displaying a slave in shackles asking the question: “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” The intended outcome was a “conversation launcher” that abolitionists would use to reframe the way their English brethren imagined slavery. It worked.

A consignment of these medallions was also shipped to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1788, where they became a fashion statement for abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers. They were worn as bracelets and as hair ornaments, and even inlaid with gold as ornaments for snuff boxes. Back in England, the women’s suffrage movement reworked Josiah Wedgwood’s famous image; with the legend reading “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” Wedgwood’s wealth worked wonders.

50 years later, it bore an unforeseen outcome. Josiah Wedgwood I was a close friend of Erasmus Darwin, whose son Robert married Susannah Wedgwood. Their union produced a son named Charles, who earned a degree in theology from Cambridge University while harboring deep doubts about Christianity. Upon graduation, Darwin became the official naturalist on a voyage around the world on H.M.S. Beagle. The five-year expedition bolstered Darwin’s theories of evolution and naturalism.

It also brought him back to England and marriage to Emma Wedgwood, the youngest daughter of Josiah Wedgwood II. At first, Darwin kept his religious doubts private, but in 1843 Josiah Wedgwood II passed away. This allowed Charles Darwin to live “comfortably circumstanced thanks to his Wedgwood inheritance” and dilly-dally with his ideas about evolution.1 It took a swift kick in the rear from Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) to get Charles going. Huxley prodded Darwin to get The Origin of Species published because “another biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace, was on the verge of publishing a paper suggesting a theory of natural selection to explain the evolution of species.”2 Without Wedgwood’s finances and Huxley’s foot, Charles Darwin’s name would probably be lost to history.

Wedgwood wealth, amassed beginning in 1759, helped raise the question: “Are blacks human?” By 1859, Wedgwood wealth reframed the question raised by Charles Darwin: “What is a human?” A contentious debate has raged ever since (think of cloning, harvesting stem cells, and abortion). Yet its doubtful Josiah Wedgwood II understood the intended outcome of Charles Darwin’s ideas. Samuel Wilberforce, however, did.

The son of William Wilberforce and Bishop of Oxford debated Huxley in the summer of 1860. He saw clearly what Darwin and Huxley envisioned – a world where religion is merely a private affair. Even though Wilberforce debunked Darwinism, Huxley was not overly concerned. Like Winston Churchill, Huxley knew history would be kind to him for he intended to write it. 100 years later, in the summer of 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy relieved voter anxiety when he declared: “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair.”3

We can’t guarantee that our wealth won’t bring about unforeseen outcomes. Yet for those on the giving or receiving end over the next 50 years, Wedgwood wealth is a cautionary tale about doing the best we can to be wise stewards.

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1 A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization, (New York: Ballantine, 1999), p.184
2 Ibid, pp.183-4
3 Senator John F. Kennedy, Address before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, (Sept. 12, 1960), available at http://www.jfklibrary.org/j091260.htm

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