The Truth About “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

June 8th, 2010 1:53 pm  |  by  |  Published in, History, Liberty, Market Regulation  |  7 Responses

The following is an educational service of the Downsize DC Foundation.

As we said yesterday, millions of Americans believe . . .

We need the government to regulate business people, otherwise they will run wild, laying waste to the environment, and selling us bad food, bad drugs, and harmful products.

One big reason people believe this is because they attended government schools and were taught about a famous book, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair’s book supposedly demonstrated that . . .

* Once upon a time, before government regulation, meat packing plants were endangering Americans with poison food
* The motivation for this poisoning was profits.

But here’s what most people don’t know . . .

* “The Jungle” was a novel, not a factual report
* Most of what Sinclair wrote was pure fiction, un-connected to reality

This is your chance to learn the truth.

“The Jungle” was intended to dramatize working conditions, NOT food safety. In fact, Sinclair’s fictional claims about food safety were limited to a mere 12 pages, but these pages got all the attention, leading Sinclair to later write, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” (Source: Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967, p. 103.)

Sinclair’s novel caused a sensation, and led to Congressional investigations, even though many politicians were skeptical of Sinclair. For instance, here’s what President Theodore Roosevelt wrote about him in July 1906 (even though he shared Sinclair’s distrust of big business):

“I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.” (Source: letter to William Allen White, July 31, 1906, from “The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt,” 8 vols, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951-54, vol. 5, p. 340.)

Sinclair’s fictional characters talk of workers falling into vats and being turned into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard,” which was then sold to the public. This was supposedly made possible by the alleged “corruption of government inspectors.” (Source: “The Age of the Moguls” by Stewert H. Holbrook, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953, pp. 110-111)

Yes, you see, there were government inspectors, even back in 1905, so does it really make sense that the solution to this supposed food safety problem was . . . government inspectors?

In fact, there were hundreds of inspectors. They came from all levels of government, federal, state, and local, and had been at work for more than a decade. As for their supposed corruption, and Sinclair’s other claims, a Congressional investigation found little evidence. Instead . . .

The 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry refuted the worst of Sinclair’s charges point-by-point. The report labeled his claims . . .

* “willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact”
* “atrocious exaggeration”
* And “not at all characteristic (of the meat packing industry)”

(Source: U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the So-called “Beveridge Amendment” to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, 59th Congress, 1st Session, 1906, pp. 346-350.)

Meanwhile, as Congress went through the time-consuming process of investigating Sinclair’s fictions, the free market was regulating the meat packing industry in its own harsh way. Meat sales plummeted.

This led the meat packing industry to lobby Congress for increased regulation!

The industry actually wanted the government to protect them from the consumer backlash by imposing regulations that would restore consumer confidence, even though new regulations were totally unneeded! The result was the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

But this was not a triumph for the idea of government regulation. Instead, it was a victory for corporate welfare . . .

* Taxpayers picked up the $3 million price tag for the new regulations
* Big meat packers benefited because small packers had a more difficult time complying with the new regulations

Upton Sinclair himself actually recognized this, and opposed the law! (Source: Upton Sinclair, “The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. J. Ogden Armour,” “Everybody’s Magazine,” XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613.)

The myth of “The Jungle” has had a terrible impact on the American mind. It has led millions of people to believe that regulation by politicians and bureaucrats is superior to regulation by the free market forces of consumers, investors, lenders, insurance companies, and legal liability.

* If the meat packing industry wanted government regulation, then it should have paid for it, not the taxpayers
* And all packing companies should have been free to reject government regulation, especially small producers
* This would have allowed consumers to decide what they preferred, and what they were willing to pay for — meat inspected by the government, or meat regulated by the self-interest of the meat packers.

In other words, government coercion was completely unjustified, even if Sinclair had been writing fact, instead of fiction.

We would like to thank Lawrence W. Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education. The facts used in this Dispatch were drawn from an article he wrote for the The Freeman: “Ideas and Consequences: Of Meat and Myth.”


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Perry Willis
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The Downsize DC Foundation

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  1. Gaby says:

    August 11th, 2010 at 4:43 pm (#)

    Although The Jungle is fiction, Upton Sinclair didn't make up what was going on in slaughterhouses. He moved to Chicago in order to research for his book, and from what he saw he wrote his book. Also, after reading The Jungle, President Roosevelt sent for inspections to take place, and from there he passed the Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act. And guess why the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry called Sinclair's charges fake? They were working hand in hand with the Meatpacking Industry. But don't worry, you're right about one thing, i am 16 and i was assigned to read The Jungle for homework.

  2. Pensive says:

    November 4th, 2010 at 1:00 am (#)

    Ehh I think it's obvious you have a partisan agenda. (esp. judging from all the propaganda off to the right here) But thank you, because I am completing a project involving how accurate The Jungle was compared to the actual working conditions of meatpackers in the Chicago area at the time, and I have found very little evidence similar to that presented here.

  3. Jer says:

    December 3rd, 2010 at 6:28 pm (#)

    I'm sorry but… your partisanship foolishly misguided this essay. President Theodore Roosevelt HIMSELF ordered an investigation of the meat industry. In 1906, the special commission released its report- the results? It confirmed almost ALL the circumstances Sinclair described. CRF (Constitutional Rights Foundation) describes just one issue in the report: "One day, the commissioners witnessed a slaughtered hog that fell part way into a worker toilet. Workers took the carcass out without cleaning it and put it on a hook with the others on the assembly line."

    Now, I don't know why you would make such an argument as "it was a fictional account" when the facts speak for themselves: the novel and resulting inspection led to the Meat Act of 1906 and the modern Food and Drug Administration. Had this account been falsified and Roosevelt not convinced of its truth after the report, he simply would have spent the time informing the public of its falsehood rather than sign the Meat Act and FDA laws.

  4. macsnafu says:

    August 22nd, 2011 at 9:56 am (#)

    Amazing how the commenters have ignored the links and quotes. This goes to show just how ingrained the bias in favor of government stupidity really is, and how much liberals are willing to ignore the corporatism that controls government, and can only control government because of the power that they, the liberals, are wiling to grant to government in foolhardy attempts to control corporations, not realizing how they are actually empowering the corporations, instead.

  5. Ragnarok says:

    September 2nd, 2011 at 4:28 pm (#)

    I agree right now all the business has been controling the goverment not allowing them to figure out a proper fix for how much we are in debt right now. And every bill that gets passed is another help the rich corperations with no motive in helping the people. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel for this either because you would pretty much have to fire the current goverment and bring in a brand new goverment and then make sure money and corperations can't control the goverment system which logically would be impossible to accomplish.

  6. Wheylous says:

    April 23rd, 2012 at 8:01 pm (#)

    Actually, he did. By his own words he visited the houses only thrice and he " really paid very little attention to the meat question while I was in Chicago."

    Ralph Chaplin, a socialist who grew up in the vicinity of the yards and packinghouses and was living there when the novel appeared said of The Jungle, "I thought it a very inaccurate picture of the stockyards district which I knew so well." Gabriel Kolko, another socialist, dismisses Sinclair and his claims as propagandist

  7. Anti-Statist says:

    October 29th, 2012 at 9:47 pm (#)

    the last comment…. " Had this account been falsified and Roosevelt not convinced of its truth after the report, he simply would have spent the time informing the public of its falsehood rather than sign the Meat Act and FDA laws." is quite pollyanish and naive of the political process and motives of public officials and bureaucrats who sometimes….may…wait for it….LIE…to further their own political careers and expand their power.