Selected quotes and excerpts from part two of Daniel J. Boorstin's epic personal trilogy of the unique American experience, covering the years between the Revolution and the Civil War.
"America was meant
to be everything... There are many soils and many climates included within
the boundary line of the United States; many countries; and one rule cannot
be laid down for all."
- Harriet Martineau
America grew in the search for community. Between the Revolution and the Civil War the young nation flourished not in discovery but in search. It prospered not from the perfection of its ways but from their fluidity. It loved with the constant belief that something else or something better might turn up.
~ Chapter 1 — The
Versatiles: New Englanders
~ Chapter 2 — The Transients: Joiners
~ Chapter 3 — The Upstarts: Boosters
~ Chapter 4 — The Rooted and the Uprooted: Southerners, White and Black
~ Chapter 5 — A Half Known Country
~ Chapter 6 — American Ways of Talking
~ Chapter 7 — Search For Symbols
~ Chapter 8 — A Spacious Republic
~ Book 1 — The Colonial Experience
~ Book 3 — The Democratic Experience
[#1 The Versatiles: New Englanders]
The sea helped New Englanders find resources, not in the land, but in themselves and in the whole world. The sea was the great opener of their markets and their minds. Who could have predicted that Puritans would become Yankees? That a people noted in the Old World for stiff-necked dogmatism would on this side become exemplars of ingenuity? That an Old English sect notoriously single of purpose would become New England paragons of versatility? That Englishmen famous for keeping their eye on the path to heaven would develop an uncanny vision for new markets and a facility for shifting investments? New Englands proved that Americans could range the world without being uprooted, that they could cling to ancestral headquarters.
The sea was a path direct from Old to New England, from Babylon to Zion. It was botha waterway from colony to mother country and a gulf that separated colonists from poverty, decadence and dynastic conflict. It was a highway to the world.
The earliest Puritans sailing to New England had huddled together, threatened only by God and the elements. Their new community life began at sea... Unlike later companies of Americans who moved westward on the land, seaborne communities were not overwhelmed by sights of new plants or new animals nor threatened by savage tribes. Travelers by land saw new landscapes, they encamped, dispersed and made homes as they went. But the very ships which brought New Englanders to their Promised Land kept them together and made them more compact, more insular, and more united when they arrived than when they had left.
When Jefferson accused the merchant of being a man without a country he spoke with the provincial voice of the Old South and he showed his ignorance of New England. Virginians seldom understood the sea-roving spirit of the New Englander, who yearned more for his native land as he wandered farther from it.
The codfish was to colonial Massachusetts what tobacco had been to colonial Virginia... Yet, while tobacco and the newly dominant Southern crop, cotton, put Southern roots ever deeper into the soil, the fisheries drew New England out toward the world.
The commerce of the sea demanded versatility. It called for quick decisions and the willingness to jettison unprofitable cargo.
Nothing did more to make Americans independent than this very War for Independence.
New England did not raise pepper or coffee or sugar or cotton, or any other staple crop to seel the world. The greatest resource of New England was resourcefulness. Using the sea, New England versatility made the very menaces of the landscape into articles of commerce. "New England," went the common taunt, "produces nothing but granite and ice." The supreme proof of New England ingenuity was her ability to turn her rocky soil and heavy winters to profit.
Until almost the middle of the 19th century, ice for summer cooling had been a rare luxury.
Since North American summers in the same latitude were hotter than those of Europe, food spoiled here even more quickly. Putrid meat, tainted poultry, rancid cream and sour milk were items which unfriendly European tourists in the 18th and 19th centuries especially noted in the American cuisine. Then, quite suddenly, in the half century before the Civil War, there was a greater increase in the consumption of ice than in the whole millennium before. By 1860 the household icebox was a commonplace in growing American cities... Ice cream had become a common dish.
The "Ice Age" of American diet - with its emphasis on sanitation, nutrition, and refreshment, on the health of the body, rather than the pleasures of the palate - had begun.
The new ice industry provided a staple New England export which helped save the port of Boston and incidentally revived Boston's commerce to the East and West Indies.
The man who did more than anyone else to make ice an American institution was Frederic Tudor of Boston, who came to be known as the "Ice King".
In May, 1833, in the most spectacular experiment of his career, Tudor sent his ship Tuscany with 180 tons of ice to Calcutta. To reach India from Boston the Tuscany had to cross the equator twice, preserving its cargo unmelted for four months... Soon ice was being shipped from Boston to all parts.
It was not long before New England's most respectable orators had reversed the proverbial taunt. No one now could deny their boast, uttered by Charles Francis Adams Jr, that "the three great staples of New England are ice and rocks and men."
By the middle of the 19th century Europeans began to notice an "American System of Manufacturing" quite different from their own. They should have called it more precisely a "New England System", for there was hardly an important manufacturing innovation in the shaping years before the Civil War that did not have its decisive trial in our Northeast. This New England system was versatility made into a way of production. It grew not from a specialized skill at making particular things - guns or clocks or textiles or boots - but from know-how that could make anything. It was the offspring of ingenuity and lack of skill, of scarce labor and vast markets, of abundant water power and meager raw materials, of private ambition and large-scale cooperation, of commercial enterprise, corporate capital, government subsidy, and happy accident. For the first time it offered a way of planting New England's seafaring agility firmly on the land.
The new combining meant simply bringing together the different processes for making a commodity under a single management and under a single roof. This was, properly speaking, the new American factory organization.
The commerce of the sea had accumulated capital. And successful seafaring merchants had learned to keep a considerable portion of their capital fluid because New England habits, climate and landscape had discouraged the amassing of impressive manorial landed estates, or the building of luxurious mansions for descedants. Whoever heard of a New England Mount Vernon or Monticello? With the wealth whcih the Rhode Island Browns and Massachusetts Traceys, Lees and Cabots had gathered from the sea, they built factories.
The 'backwardness' of the American economy and technology made introduction of new factory ways easier. In the highly developed economy of England, for example, the several stages of production had long been sharply defined: each had become an occupation conducted in a different place with its own business customs and plant practices. In the English production of cotton textiles, the spinner, the weaver, the dyer and the printer each had his separate traditions and thought of himself as engaged in a distinctly separate process... As a result, many groups had vested interests in not centralizing or simplifying production.
During the colonial
period, the center of American craftsmanship had been Philadelphia. There
one found the best tailors, the best hatmakers, the best shoemakers, the
best finished-metal workers... It was around Philadelphia that the largest
number of 18th century immigrant artisans, especially those from Germany
and central Europe, had settled. The two most distinctively 'American'
craft products - the Pennsylvania rifle and the Conestoga covered wagon
- were actually the work of Swiss and German craftsmen who had only recently
settled in Pennsylvania.
These traditions of fine craftsmanship seem to have been more a hindrance than an encouragement to innovation. Just as the European industrial revolution did not come first to France, with its great artisan traditions in luxury products, but to England; so the revolutionary American factory first came not to Philadelphia but to New England.
The 'American System of Manufacturing' from its very beginning was no triumph of American inventive genius. Almost all the basic inventions that mechanized textile manufacturing came from England. And they reached America slowly.
American working men and women, already known the world over for literacy and intelligence, were not noted for specialized skills... The unheralded Know-how Revolution produced a new way, not only of making things, but of making the machines that make things. It was a simple but far-reaching change, not feasible in a Europe rich in traditions, institutions and vested skills. What happened in America in manufacturing was comparable to what had happened in other fields. The scarcity of legal learning did not lead to a scarcity of laws or lawyers (we soon become the most lawyered and most legislated country in the world), but instead to a new kind of legal profession and a new concept of law... Similarly, the scarcity of craft skills set the stage of a new nearly craftless way of making things.
New England versatility shaped at least two great and lasting tendencies in American civilization. Machines, not men, became specialized: Where labor was scarce, where a man was expected to turn easily from one task to another, his machines had to possess the comptence he lacked.... A premium on general intelligence: In the Old World, to say a worker was unskilled was to say he was unspecialized, which meant his work had little value. In America, the new system of manufacturing destroyed the antithesis between skilled and unskilled.
The common law was still essentially a judge-declared law. It hung on precedent, and not until there was in print a body of decided cases on the crucial legal questions would an American common law really be established. This too was a service of New England, and especially of Massachusetts. Within a half-century, the opinions of a series of remarkably prolific judges sitting on the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth established the independence, the adaptive vigor, and the traditionalism of American law... The great lawgiving judge of the age - in many ways the founder of an American system of law - was Massachusetts Chief Justice (1830-60), Lemuel Shaw. Measured quantitatively or qualitatively, his work had no equal. He accommplished (in his biographer Leonard Levy's phrase) the "day-to-day domestication of the English Common Law."
Shaw's bold adaptation of the common law to the needs of railroad enterprise was only one illustration of his ready response to new needs. The first railroads posed many problems, long since forgotten, all far beyond the ken of the medieval common law... To meet some of the new needs, Shaw introduced the expression and the important idea of 'eminent domain'. This American legal invention enabled the state to buy private property for a public use, which now included the use of railroads. Shaw thus recognised that, although the railroad company ran only its own cars on the line, it was actually a new kind of public highway. With this idea he laid the foundation for the new industrial concept of a 'public utility'.
Only a few years later, in the era of the Civil War, this common-law approach to experience was to become a whole philosophy, or rather an American substitute for a philosophy. Its name was pragmatism.
New England was a garden of intellectual hybrids. The word 'Commonwealth', like 'eminent domain' and 'public utility', expressed belief in the intermixture of public and private interests... The wealth of that community, whether owned publicly or privately, was somehow held in common... The 'common good' in the preabme of the Massachusetts Constitution was a much fuzzier notion than 'sovereignty', 'rights', or the other currency of political theorists, and the meaning of Commonwealth would have to be defined less by logic than by experience.
[#2 The Transients: Joiners]
We all know that, when the first European settlers came across the sea to found Jamestown, Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay Colony, they came in groups. They came in community, depending on one another... Those who crossed the water did not travel alone.
But of all American myths, none is stronger than that of the loner moving west across the land. The pioneering spirit, we are often told, is a synonym for 'individualism'... True enough, the heroic individual has held the spotlight of history... There was of, course, the occasional lone traveler and individual explorer. Sometimes, he was the person who went there first; seldom was he the settler. It is mostly on the lecture platform, in the movies, and on television, that a lone-wolf adventurer is a star. In history, even the greater explorer had been the man who drew others to a common purpose, in the face of unpredictable hardships. The great geographic discoveries have been accomplished less typically by individuals than by groups. On his first voyage Columbus commanded three vessels; on his second, seventeen vessels with fifteen hundred men. The genius of a Columbus, Vasco de Gama, a La Salle, a Magellan, a De Soto, was that of the organizer. The maker and leader of a newly detached community was the man who first led other men to new, dangerously remote, places.
The continent too was an ocean. To cross the wild continent safely, one had to travel with a group. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, those who pushed far west of the established settlements, like the Pligrim Fathers, seldom went alone.
The lone adventurer was likely to be a priest, a professional explorer, a surveyor, a guide or a hunter. Early settlers, those who took one-way passage and became the backbone of new Westwen communities, generally went together.
People moving these great distances into an unknown landscape, threatened by numerous nameless dangers, banded together: not because they especially loved their neighbors or had inherited any ties to them, but because they needed one another. Westward-moving pioneers everywhere found group travel and group living normal.
Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Santa fe Trail and the California and Oregon Trails, was famous from the 1820s to the 1850s as a place where travel parties were put together. Here or a few miles farther west, as Josiah Gregg noted in his 'Commerce of the Prairies' (1844), was the "general 'port of embarkation' for every part of the great western and northern 'prairie ocean'," where people who had never before seen one another agreed to share daily taks and mortal risks till they reached their destination.
We cannot, of course, know exactly how many traveled west in the large groups which included more than a family or two. the evidence suggests great numbers. For example, on the 'Platte Route' (a stretch of 500 miles from Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie), the first great emigration party, led by Colonel Stephen W Kearny in 1845, was a wagon train three miles long. At South Pass Wyoming, during October and November 1858 (not the season of heaviest travel), a count showed 95 separate parties comprosing 597 wagons and 1366 men. This great migration across the American continent-ocean had no equal in modern times: in the words of Barnard Taylr, the reporter sent to California by the New York Tribune, it "more than equalled the great military expeditions of the Middle Ages in magnitude, peril and advanture." The day when it became safe and normal for the lone individual or the single family yo travel into the Far West came later, with the railroads.
Out of the vast American spaces and from the need to travel in groups came the power of the organizer. Men living beyond the jurisdiction of government, away from the places and customs of their fathers, had to be persuaded to do their jobs. Here was a new demand for that special combination of qualities that enbled a man to persuade or cajole others to do their share for the group. Without the power or tradition or prestige of an army commander, the leader of a travelling community had to be able to get things done... A host of factors combined to give the organizer a power he had seldom before held outside of military life or civil government. In traditional, settled communities, many qualities - noble ancestry, landed property, wealth, bravery, military prowess, learning, shrewdness or eloquence - might make a man a leader; among the transients in sparsely settled America, the leader was the persuader and the organizer.
Out of the variety,
flow and risks of movement on and across the continent-ocean came forces
which long shaped the American community, an enduring inheritance from
the age of transients.
(1) Majority Rule: Rarely in history do great numbers of people find themselves in communities which they have not only personally chosen, but have actually helped to bring into bring. This happened in the transient communities of the West. In these groups majority rule was the law, not for explicit theoretical reasons but from simple convenience. Groups of men who had never met before had to assign power, to approve and revise rules, and to make vital decisions; they counted heads for lack of other ways of deciding... Majority rule was the most obvious, the simplest, and the least violent way of exercising the rule of those living and present.
(2) Functional Community: A community that did not do its job could not command allegiance. Governments so recently created and for such specific purposes seemed neither good nor bad themselves; they had to be evaluated only by their performance.... The attitude toward government, therefore, in communities shaped by transients was far different from that in places where the glory of ancient battles and the dignity of anointed princes claimed a loyalty which passed all reason.
(3) The Blurred Boundary between Public and Private: Perhaps the most important result of the transient experience was the blurring of that distinction which had meant much in European life and was already becoming the basis of European political debate in the early 19th century - the distinction between the realm of the individual and the realm of the official group; in Spencer's later phrase, "The Man versus The State"; in the parlance of political debate, "Individualism versus Collectivism", "Capitalism versus Socialism". For many reasons, these distinctions would become peculiarly meaningless in America. One of the reasons was that in the beginnings of American communities the line between the private and the public was so unclear. Communities were expressly created to serve private interests, and private interests were preserved only by the express construction of effective communities.
The settlement of the West, like so many of the other central events of American history, occurred in an atmosphere of pregnant legal ambiguity... In Illinois, for example, before the end of 1828, about two-thirds of the population were 'squatters' - settlers on land that still technically belonged to the United States government. This very word 'squatter', in England and in the populous eastern seaboard states, had a taint of fraud. There a squatter was a person who settled on land already legally belonging to someone else, in order to acquire title by occupancy or to profit from some technical defect in the title of the original owner. But not here. The Western 'squatter' was usually the first actual settler, the pre-emptor, the man who got there first. Only gradually did the Federal laws begin to take account of these facts of life and of the needs of the transients.
The Gold Rushers later experienced many of the same problems as the Land Rushers. First-arriving miners, like pioneer farmers, did not wait for government to be established from either the state or the national capital. Finding themselves a mining community long before there was an effective federal, territorial or state law of mines, they simply made their own laws. As early as 1851, the California legislature declared that, in mining claims, such local "customs, usages or regulations, when not in conflict with the constitution and laws of this state, shall govern." By 1866 there were over eleven hundred self-organized mining districts. These self-governing, self-legislating units made rules which varied in detail. But they shared the belief that the community of men-on-the-spot could and should make and enforce their own rules.
The vigilantism of the transients grew in communities that were yet without government. It arose at first, not to circumvent courts, but to provide them; not because the machinery of government had become complicated, but because there was no machinery at all; not to neutralize institutions already there, but to fill a vacuum.
Many features of their life led miners to prefer speedy justice to legal nicety. In the new-found mines, of all places in the world, time was money. In the early Gold Rush, a man's time was easily worth from $16 to $100 a day. Spanish mining laws had ordered all cases involving mines to be decided 'without delay' for a few hours might separate the lucky from the unlucky... Seldom were there jails and rarely any paid officials to guard the accused. Trial and punishment therefore had to be speedy... Banishment, whipping or death became the most popular forms of punishment because (unlike imprisonment) they required no expensive establishment and could be accomplished without delay... To help you at all, the law had to act now.
Officials made no decisions which could not be quickly and effectively enforced.
The law was invisible precisely because it was pervasive. Miners sometimes thought they had no law at all... Their law was spontaneous and unself-conscious, the unreflective rules of the whole community... Among the transients, in the mining camp, the law was everybody's - to understand, to defend, to enforce.
In most mining camps... though there were no police, provisions and tools were seldom stolen. Theft, murder and all kinds of violence were rare.
"Crime was rare, for
punishment was certain."
- A '49er recalls justice in Nevada City
The mining camps that lacked laws were thus by no means lawless, but the very simplicity of their government apparatus sometimes made it easier for lawless elements to seize what government there was. Miners then also used vigilantism to set their meager government back on the right track. To do this required great tact and courage as well as considerable organizing ability.
In the moving companies, and especially in the transient mining camps, family names were overshadowed by given names, even more by vivid nicknames. These were certainly not inherited but were given on the spot, identifying a man by his personal characteristics, his stature, his occupation, an exploit, a gesture, a feature, a quirk of body, voice or appetite. In the Western camps, names like "Honest Whiskey Joe," "The American Pie-Eater," or "Truthful James" described people cut off from their family past, whose very nomenclature was of their own making.
In settled communities, inherited possessions (like an inherited name) distinguished a man by advantages he himself had not earned.... The first axion of any westward-moving traveler was to travel light. If he did not start that way, the trip would discipline him to it.
The most interesting of the items commonly left behind was, of course, women. The mining camps were notoriously masculine. In the spring of 1849, the women in all San Francisco were said to number only fifteen. Tough, bearded, weather-bronzed miners would stand in the streets for hours to have the sight of a child at play. Every camp had its quota of prostitues, who prospered in a market of short supply, but men would travel miles to welcome "the first real lady in camp."
The scarcity of women lowered sexual morality, and certainly made life rougher, but it was not entirely without advantages, for when women came later, along with their morality they brough inequality... The making of social distinction was woman's work.
Western travelers, determined to get there first, willingly ran substansial risks to travel by fast high-pressure engines. When an American sailing vessel normally lasted 20 years and a whaler might stay in service 60 years, the life expectancy of a western steamboat was brief. The contrast with eastern steamboats was also striking. In 1860, for example, when the average age of steamboats actually inspected in New York was nearly 9 years, in Pittsburgh it was slightly over 2 years. Western steamboats showed an appalling accident record. A voyage on the Mississippi, it was often said, was far more dangerous than a passage across the ocean. There were no official figures before 1852, but we can estimate that of all steamboats built before mid-century, about 30% were lost in accidents... there were at least 150 major explosions on steamboats on western rivers, in which altohgether no less than 1400 people were killed.
Steamboats followed routes laid out by nature, but railroads (although never free to ignore natural contours, and inevitably guided by them) were the routes themselves. The railroads in the American West had the power to make a path of settlement. Perceptive Europeans noted this unique potency. "To make a railway where population exists is one thing," observed a British railway engineer in 1851, "but to make one in order to call forth a population is another."
The American railroads were constructed in the quickest way, and with little regard to safety, comfort or durability... Flimsy construction and fast speeds over poorly graded, sharp-curving, unfenced track on rough terrain caused numerous accidents. By mid-century, American railroad wrecks, especially in the West, were as frequent and notorious as steamboat explosions had been a decade or two earlier.
English locomotives were solid, stable, heavy and well-made. Marvels of strength and precision, they were generally rigid and unadaptable... By comparison... lightness, simplicity and flexibility would continue to distinguish much of American industrial design.
Americans seldom thought of themselves as building for the future. American technology was a technology of the present, shaped by haste, by scarcity of craftmanship, of capital and of raw materials, and by a firm expectation of rapid change in the technology itself. In striking contrast to all this, British railroad builders consciously built for the future. But they became prisoners because of their rigid expectations... By building rapidly and flimsily, Americans refused hostages to the future. They affirmed their belief that in America everything would change - including, of course, the techniques of railroad building. For them railroads were by no means "a final improvement in the means of locomotion." The British confidence in the future, and in its resemblance to the present, made it hard for Britishers even to imagine obsolescence. But belief in obsolescence became an article of American faith.
[#3 The Upstarts: Boosters]
"'Dost thou know how
to the play the fiddle?' 'No,' answered Themistocles, 'but I understand
the art of raising a little village into a great city'."
- Motto on masthead of the Emigrant Aid Journal
The emerging businessman of the upstart cities had much in common with the energetic American of an earlier generation. He was the Franklin of the West. He was the undifferentiated man of the colonial period, but in a more expansive setting. The new language of that day called him a 'businessmen'; the retrospective language of our century calls him the booster. He thrived on growth and expansion. His loyalties were intense, naive, optimistic and quickly transferable. Versatility was his hallmark. He usually had neither the advantages or disadvantages of specialized skills or monopolistic protection.
The circumstances of American life in the upstart cities of the West produced a lively competitive spirit. But the characteristic and most fertile competition was a competition among communities. We have been misled by slogans of individualism. Just as the competition among seaboard colonial cities helped diffuse American culture and kept it from being concentrated in a European-style metropolis, so the competition among western upstart cities helped create the booster spirit. Where there had been no citis before, where all were growing fast, there was no traditional rank among urban centres. If Lexington, Kentucky could quickly arise by 1800 to be the most populous city of the West, if St Louis and Cincinnatti and Chicago had so suddenly arisen, might not some new Lexington displace them all? Many of each community's institutions had been founded to give it a competitive advantage. Dr. Drake's medical college helped Cincinnatti keep ahead of Lexington, just as Ogden's streets and bridges and parks helped Chicago lead Cincinnatti. Where individual and community prosperity were so intermingled, competition among individuals was also a competition among communities.
The first taks of the printer in the upstart city was ro bring into existence a community where the newspaper could survive... The pioneer newspapers of the American West often began as a new kind of advertising leaflet, and later became news-sheets. They started by advertising the nonexistent town where they hoped to make a vigorous life. Seeking settlers from all over the country, they were probably our earliest media of national advertising. In the Old World, the papers satisfied a need; here, they excited a hope.
"A new and sparse population
must make known its presence, its needs and its purposes; and this is best
done through a public newspaper."
- James Stirling
From the early days of the 19th century, hotels were social centers. What more appropriate 'palaces' for a migratory people? In the period of most rapid urban growth... Hotels were usually the centers of lavish private entertainment (which, being held there, acquired a public significance) and of the most important public celebrations... From that early day, Americans hotels remained testing places for the most advanced domestic conveniences... The large transient population of hotels provided a rare opportunity to whet public appetite for machines, conveniences and gadgets of all kinds.
Hotels were both creatures and creators of communities, as well as symptoms of the frentic quest for community. Americans were already forming their habit of gathering from all corners of the nation for mixed public-private, business-pleasure purposes. Conventions were the new occasions, and hotels were distinctively American facilities making conventions possible. Within a century, the US would be the most conventioning nation in the world... By mid-20th century, conventions accounted for over a third of yearly room occupancy of all hotels in the nation; about 18,000 different conventions were held annually with a total audience of about 10 million persons.
In America, the hotelkeeper, who was no longer the genial, deferential 'host' of the 18th century European inn, became a leading citizen. Holding a large stake in the community, he exercised power to make it prosper.
Anyone who frequented hotels soon discovered how many Old World distinctions were dissolved in America. The European middle classes counted the right to be by oneself or alone with one's family or chosen friends among the amenities, a sign of civilized respectability. But a western traveler who found himself sharing his dinner table, and called upon the chat familiarly, with a miscellaneous company of common soldiers, farmers, laborers, teamsters, lawyers, doctors, ministers, bankers, judges or generals, soon discovered that Americans considered the desire for privacy a vice akin to pride... American hotels were a microcosm of American life. People in transient and upstart comminities had to become accustomed to live and eat and talk in the presence of those they knew only casually.
A clue to the American optimistic confusion of present and future was the new vagueness in the words for urban centers. In England the word 'city' had a precise meaning, distinguished historically and legally from words for smaller places. Even before the time of Henry VIII, a 'city was generally a cathedral town... In English nomenclature, below the city came the town, and below the town came the village, which was... larger than a hamlet. In the rapidly growing American West, these distinctions of usage disappeared. Every settlement, real or imaginary, large or small, permanent or temporary, claimed the name of 'city'. Every place that claimed the honors of a city set about justifying itself by seeking to conjure up suitably metropolitan institutions.
An easy way to prove that one's 'city' was destined to be a great metropolis was to provide it as quickly as possible with all the metropolitan hallmarks, which included not only a newspaper and a hotel, but an institution of higher learning. The booster college illustrates how this ideal of the complete community promoted the diffuseness of American culture... Bizarre, from a European point of view, was the fact that, between the Revolution and the Civil War, much the larger number of new colleges was founded in the western outposts and on the fringes of settlement... This disproportion is all the more impressive since population had remained concentrated in the longer-settled areas of the Atlantic seaboard.
Support of colleges by voluntary contributions from the surrounding community, which began very early, became a tradition which did not die... Citizens so involved in the founding of an institution assumed that they or their representatives should have a voice in its government. They would insist that the college serve them and their community. There circumstances strengthened that distinctive American way of governing institutions of higher education which had begun to take shape even in the early 18th century. Most American colleges would be legally owned and ultimately controlled by a board of trustees drawn from the community... The distinctively American college was neither public nor private, but a community institution.
[#4 The Rooted and the Uprooted: Southerners, White and Black]
An island — "The South"
— was appearing within the southern United States in the first half of
the 19th century, as more and more people there came to think of themselves
a separate homogenous nation. That South was part myth and part fact. Geographically
it was largely myth, for the lands below the Mason-Dixon Line contained
samples of all the physiographic areas then found elsewhere in the United
States, and even added some of their own... There were long fertile valleys
and broad pine barrens; there was the freshing coolness of the North Carolina,
Kentucky and Virginia mountaintops,a dn the stifling humidity of the Louisiana,
Mississippi and Florida jungles. The vast potential of agriculture extended
from the upland farm to valley plantation to swampy riceland. And there
was, geographically speaking, very little to hold the South together: split
by a great mountain range, it had few roads or other internal communications;
nearly all the great rivers only marked the edges of led outward.
Culturally, too, the South had the elements of great variety. The remnants of French and Spanish culture in Louisiana and Florida, and the survivals of Roman law in Louisiana were stronger, more widespread, and more durable alien elements than were then found elsewhere in the eastern United States... The racial diversity was especially visible.
Despite all this, no other part of the nation became more conscious of its identity, or more passionately asserted its homogenity. Belief in uniformity tends to create uniformity. There were many Souths, but after about 1830 leading white Southerners could see only one. Theirs was a triumph of history over geography, of imagination over reality.
While these southern Americans believed their region unified by its homogenity, what actually drew it together and made it conscious of itself and (according to white Southern belief) ineradicable division - into white and black. The South's "Peculiar Institution" was in essence a way not of uniting of bifurcating the life, the hopes and the destiny of Southern communities. Leading Southerners persuaded themselves that only by dividing their communities into two could they make themselves one. And "The South" became the most unreal, most powerful and most disastrous oversimplification in American history.
As King Cotton rose to power, the cotton factor became the power behind the throne. He decided where, to whom and at what price the crop should be sold. He had much to say about what the planters bought with their money, where they bought and at what prices... The factor ordinarily received a planter's whole crop. Unlike the broker, who acted in the name of his employer, the factor acted in his own name. the goods, until sold, remained legally at the risk of the planter... The factor's fee was generally two and one-half percent of the price received for cotton sold and two and one-half percent of the purchase price of goods nought.
The cotton mania went on... Every planter aimed to produce more cotton so that he might free himself of debt to the factor in some year which miraculously combined bumper yields and high cotton prices. To this end the planter wanted more land and more slaves. But his neighbors all had the same idea. As he produced more cotton, so did they; and the increase in the cotton crop helped to keep down the price of cotton.
Capitalism grew in the South, but the capitalistic spirit did not. A rigid system confined the pursuers of profit in a prison of customs. The factors, the Southern merchants par excellence, never became Merchant Princes. They seem to have been a conservative lot, fearful lest any change might reduce their commissions. The planters were entangled in a net which kept them from any new opportunity, while it sapped their will to try new things. For the planter himself, this way of business spelled the decline of enterprise and versatility. For the Southern community, as a whole, a distinctive and catastrophic effect was the separation of wealth from prestige. The factors, who dominated the commerce of the South, did not dominate politics or culture... Money accumulated in the cities, but political power and the voice of the South remained down on the plantation.
It was one thing for an ancient European society, with a feudal past and a long tradition of subsistence agriculture, to look down its nose at tradesmen, merchants and bankers. It was quite another for a society supported by large-scale capitalistic agriculture. The South denied itself when it proclaimed that Cotton was King and yet condescended toward those who dealt in cotton. The same blurring of the facts of life appeared in the Southern attitude toward the slave-trader, on whom, too, the Cotton South became increasingly reliant.
The South's illusion of homogenity was confirmed by the stability of her population and by ger freedom from mass immigration from Europe, which incidentally made her seem more European... In 1860 over a third of the total population was in the South. But, of the four million white foreign-born as a whole, over 85% lived north of the Mason-Dixon line... It was no wonder the South had few voluntary newcomers. Good cheap farm land, free employment, and the opportunity to rise in the world were all scarcer in the South than in the expanding North and West. Not many Southerners were sorry their region did not attract more white immigrants... Why should they welcome boatloads of intractable Irish, independent-minded Germans or unassimilable Jews? ...Many Southern spokesmen traced national political ills (and the declining influence of the South) to the European immigrant influx, among other unwelcome changes.
Southerners did not count the Negro as an immigrant primarily becaue they did not consider him a candidate for assimilation into their community... Yet a third of the Southern population consisted of Negroes... The South was a land of invisible immigrants, or rather immigrants who had come to seem invisible.
After the 1830s, Southerners themselved explained the South's division into two communities as the inevitable result of the distinction of race... In retrospect, however, the history of Negro slavery in the southern United States does not confirm this belief. Decades passed after his first arrival in the American colonies before the Negro acquired the status of a slaves... During most of the 17th century the Virginia Negroes who were described as not "free" were not necessarily slaves. The opposite of "free" in those days was not "slave" but "unfree" and there were many gradations of unfreedom: villeinage, the involuntary servitude of delinquent debtors... the labor of orphans and bastards compelled to earn their food and lodging, and the servidtude for a term of years voluntarily undertaken by indenture. In the first decades in Virginia, most of the population was thus in some sense unfree... The Negro shared her servile condition with many European immigrants; he became free at the end of his term of service.
The status of "slave" did not actually exist in English law. Before the end of the 17th century, however, "slave" had begun to acquire a new and technical legal meaning in British North America, and the status had begun to befixed on the Negro. Yet the form which the institution of slavery assumed was not an importation from the Portugeuse or Spanish, who had long known slavery through Roman law... From the 1660s on, for the English and other Christian immigrants whom Virginia and Maryland were then eager to attract as laborers, the colonies changed laws and shortened periods of servitude, thus brightening the prospects for an indentured servant to become free... But the African, an involuntary immigrant, had not in the first place been attracted by the terms of service... Therefore nothing was to be lost by worsening his status, while something was gained by extending the period of his forced service... In 1670, Virginia enacted that "all servants not being Christians" brought in by sea, were to be slaves for life, and at about the same time provided that conversion to Christianity would not emancipate a slave... By 1705, Virginia's Black Code, which legislated specifically for the African immigrants, made their slaves status indelible.
Thomas Jefferson... lamented the effects of slavery on the white masters, and expressed his conviction that the institution should not be permanent. Since the assimimilation of the Negro immigrants into the white population of Virginia was unthinkable, according to Jefferson, the happiest solution would be their colonization, conceivable on islands in the West Indies or Africa... Southerners were thus slow to accept Negro slavery as a permanent fixture of their society. And they were slow to abandon hope that its evil could be removed... The fact of rae, however, increasingly haunted Southerners with the suspicion that these immigrants were unassimilable... To think of the Negroes as fellow-seekkers after the opportunities of the New World, who had an equal claim on its benefits, was precisely what Southerners could not do.
When the Virginia legislature met at Richmond, in December 1831... it was the first and last time that the pros and cons of slavery were freely debated in a public body in the South... It was an allegory of the forces at work on the slavery issue in the nation as a whole. Moreover, it offered a preview of arguments for and against slavery that were to be advanced in the next three decades, and it was a turning point in Southern attitudes o the Peculiar Institution.
Before the legislative session ended, delegates had tried nearly every argument for or against slavery - in a public and widely reported debate which for good sense, passion and forensic freedom had seldon been equalled in America.
There is no record of a serious proposal among Southern whites at the time for the abolition of slavery without the subsquent removal of the freed Negroes... Those who had been brought here against their will surely would not have to be consulted before they were sent away.
Of the central question of whether to abolish slavery, a tally of the votes of the 134 members shows a fairly even division of opinion: about 60 favored some immediate plan of abolition; about 60 (including some who agreed that slavery might be an evil, but insisted that the obstacles to its removal were insuperable) opposed any such move; and about a dozen, who held the balance of power, professed to favor eventual emancipation and wanted an immediate antislavery declaration, but were compromisers, preferring to postpone a decision rather than sharpen the issue. In the result, supporters of the status quo won, because they readily agreed on what they favored, while the antislavery people could not combine on any one program of abolition.
The main effect of the debate, in Virginia and elsewhere in the South, was to put the proponents of slavery publicly on the defensive, to give them an occasion to speak out, and so to give new vigor to the Southern defense of slavery. In the spring legislative elections in 1832, several delegates from eastern Virginia who had spoken against slavery were defeated. Able Southern writers, no longer merely satisfied with refuting attacks on the Peculiar Institution, or merely with proving that slavery was not as inhumane as generally supposed, or that it actually had some civilizing effect on its victims, now mounted a counterattack. Their new strategy, devised partly from ancient and partly from modern notions, was to argue that slavery was a positive good.
In the longer perspective of American history, it was perhaps less the institution of slavery (which most other European peoples had, in one way or another, experienced and then transcended) that the notion that there could be an indelible immigrant, which plagued the South and the nation.
In the Southern states as a whole, Negroes comprised over one-third of the population during the years from 1790 to 1860, and nearly all of them were slaves... At the opening of the Civil War less than 5% of white Southerners owned any slaves and less than 1% of the slaveowners geld as many as 100 slaves. Everywhere in the South, however, slavery governed the relations of whites to Negroes. Southerners were not mistaken when they said it fixed the tone of their life.
No system, Southern apologists argued, was better designed than slavery for manly self-government by the ruling class, since slavery imposed the least government interference between master and servant... But there were a number of peculiarities of Southern slavery which left its laws even more unwritten - and hence even more rigid - than the laws of other slave societies. The first of these was an ironic result of the freedom-loving character of English common law... English lawyers had long boasted of their common-law preference for freedom: a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty; his home is his castle; his personal rights are sacred; his liberty cannot be infringed except where law and constitution justify it, and where technical forms are observed. For several centuries a classic expression of this spirit had been the refusal of English law to recognize the institution of slavery.
A catastrophic consequence of this freedom-loving spirit was that, when slavery grew up in the British Empire, there was no recognized body of laws covering it. This proved most unfortunate for the Negro, whom it left unprotected... In the Southern United States a slave would have fewer legal rights and would receive less protection from the letter of the law than anywhere else among civilised peoples. Elsewhere in the New World, the slave was never so barren of legal rights. Since slavery had long existed in Spain, Spanish colonists had a ready-made slave code... This doctrine was reinforced by the Catholic refusal to recognize the inferiority of the Negro in the eyes of God... The Church, like the State, stood between master and slave. It was plain, then, in the Spanish colonies, that the master's power over his slave could never be legally absolute.
Another historical accident contributed to the catastrophic Southern oversimplification. In the cosmopolitan world of Roman law, of which Spain was part, slavery had been the lot of many races. But in British North America... slavery was identified with the Negro. Now for the first time in Western history, the status of slave coincided with a difference of race. Southerners thus came to believe that the difference of race itself justified slavery. The elaborate ancient laws, meant for a world in which war or poverty might make anyone a slave, seemed superfluous and irrelevent.
There was a great disparity between the letter of the laws - those few rules on the books - and the actual practice. Southern defenders of the Peculiar Institution could scarcely deny that the letter of the law looked harsh... But even hostile observers noted, were not rigorously or regularly enforced... "The restrictions upon slaves are very rigorous in law," a Yankee traveler noted in 1835, "but not in fact." Southerners rightly argued that what abolitionists read in lawbooks did not give an accurate picture of what really happened in the South.
"You are all now going
to the devil and I will go with you. Honor and patriotism require me to
stand by my State, right or wrong."
- Benjamin F. Perry of South Carolina (1860)
[#5 A Half Known Country]
One of the decisive American anachronisms, one of the odd, lucky, shaping facts about this nation, was that it had begun to flourish even before it was explored - and partly even because it had not yet been explored. This explained much of its precocity and vitality. In the New World, a nation could grow while it discovered itself... Old World nations knew - or thought they knew - their extent, their boundaries, their topography and their resources. Americans expected their nation to grow as they discovered where they were and what they had to work with... America was so fertile a repository for hopes because it was so attractive a locale for illusions. The map of America was full of blank spaces that had to be filled. Where solid facts were scarce, places were filled by myths - largely European in origin.
"But what of the 'Great
American Desert', which occupied so much space on the mpa a generation
ago? It is nomadic and elusive; it recedes before advancing civilization
like the Indian and buffalo which once roamed it..."
- Josiah Strong
Numerous ambiguities surrounding the meaning of 'desert' compounded the uncertainties of the landscape. As that word gained currency to describe parts of the West, to some it meant a kind of American Sahara, to others an unpleasant place fit only for Indians, and to still others it carried a variety of other forbidding connotations. It became almost as indefinite in its meaning as in its location. The widespread scarcity of wood and water were of course real facts which Walter Prescott Webb and others in the 20th century showed to be shaping influences of this West. But the waterless, treeless, uninhabitable desert east of the Rockies was pure myth... Haunted by visions of broiling sands and blinding sun, Americans hastened westward. Imaginary perils of geography were added to the real threats from nature and the Indians, and the scarcities of wood, water and other resources. They thus left behind the hospitable plains of the midwest on their unknowing way to more arid regions. The Great Plains became a barrier to be crossed with all possible speed, perhaps delaying settlement of the fertile midwest by several decades.
These frightening visions had other effects. Was not such a Great American Desert admirably suited to contain the Indians? ...Secretary of War John C Calhoun's plan for a "Permanent Indian Frontier", enacted in 1825, proved less permanent than he had supposed, for the myth of the Great American Desert did not live forever. As it was gradually dispelled, white men began to wonder whether this land west of the 95th meridian might not, after all, be better than the Indians deserved.
In the geographic darkness
of the West, some managed to convince themselves and others that they had
found what they wanted. That same darkness concealed many a swindler, who
lured his quarry to a blank place on a map, there to find whatever he chose
to plant. The hoax became a minor western institution, and figured prominently
in western folklore. Mythic mines were legion; they multiplied in vast
regions of half-knowledge... A beautiful example was the Great Diamond
Hoax of 1872, commonly called the biggest western mining swindle of the
Philip Arnold and John Slack proved to be two of the most sophisticated swindlers of modern times. On remote mesas in northwestern Colorado, they had actually staked out a claim, and had spared no trouble or expense in salting it with small diamonds and rubies. Their protection, of course, was the vastness of the country, the remoteness of their find, and the general geographic ignorance. If they could keep the location of their diamond fields secret from the general public, allowing only a few credulous colleagues to be guided to the spot, they might pyramid their investment into a substansial fortune before they could be exposed.
The diamond fever rose form May to November of 1872. Exposure of the hoax might have been indefinitely delayed had not the hoaxers thoughtlessly located their diamond field in the neighborhood of the 40th parallel. In 1867, Congress had authorized its famous 40th Parallel Survey: a "geological and topographical exploration of the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains, including the route or routes of the Pacific railroad."
America was one of the last places where settlers woulc come in large numbers before the explorers, the geographers, the painters and the professional naturalists. Already in the colonial period, this curious fact had brightened American thinking as physical and intellectual expansion became synonymous. Knowledge came naturally, and this shaped the very definition of knowledge. This was crucial too for the spirit of the new nation.
In the 20th century the vast and varied continental United States startles the air traveler by the rectangular symmetry of its fences and roads. More than three-quarters of the present area of continental United States is visibly subdivided in a rectilinear pattern. Roads are oriented to the principial points of the compass. The American land (small rectangles subdivided from squares one mile by mile, which are in turn grouped in larger squares six miles by six miles) has thus remained one of the largest monuments to 'a priorism' in all human history. And in a country which is a byword for adaptability and empiricism! Our land pattern is a relic of the young nation's need to make a commodity of its land, and hastily to map and sell it, even before it was explored or surveyed. It is one of the first examples of the peculiar importance of packaging in America. In this case, the items to be packaged were parcels of outlying wilderness.
National arrogance in the 20th century had led us to assume that Latin America can do nothing better than follow the North American pattern, and especially that of the United States. In the early 19th century, however, there were imaginative American statesmen who could think of no grander fulfilment of our federal republican ideal than that all North America, following the Latin American example, should form itself into several independent and self-governing nations. The general belief that people from the United States would spread over the continent did not necessarily mean that they would remain a part of the United States. For example, since Oregon was so remote, American statesmen long assumed that its inhabitants were destined to govern themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, who as early as 1809 had expressed an interest (which he never abandoned) in incorporating Cuba into the Union, hoped that the War of 1812 would bring in Canada to round out "such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation."
There was hardly a statesmen of the era who did not, at one time in his career, see the United States much more narrowly confined and, at another time, far more vastly extended than it would prove to be... The geometric neatness of American political boundaries was still in the future. The vast Oregon country, for example, which comprised all the later states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and large parts of Wyoming and Montana, was the scene of joint occupation by Americans and British for nearly thirty years after 1818. American negotiations with the British were a continuing effort to keep boundaries vague until American emigration might settle the question. The independent Republic of Texas, recognized by the United States in 1836, remained a separate nation until its incorporation into the Union in 1845... Within the United States itself opposition to annexation was violent... It was, some (such as John Quincy Adams) said a Southern imperialist conspiracy; annexation would dissolve the Union... Adams remained adamant for a tight little Union with its delicate balance of forces... In the mid-19th century, "Manifest Destiny" covered a multitude of doubts.
[#6 American Ways of Talking]
The new riches of an American language were not found in the pages of an American Shakespeare or Milton but on the tongues of Western boatmen, town boosters, fur traders, explorers, Indian-fighters, and sodbusters. While the greatness of British English could be viewed in a library, the greatness of American English had to be heard to be appreciated. America had no powerful literary aristocracy, no single cultural capital, no London. And the new nation gave the language back to the people. No American achievement was more distinctive or less predictable.
"The English provincialisms
keep their place; they are confined to their own particular localities,
and do not encroach on the metropolitan model. The American provincialisms
are most equally distributed through all classes and localities, and though
some of them may not rise above a certain level of society, others are
heard everywhere. The senate or the boudoir is no more sacred from their
intrusion than the farmhouse or the tavern."
- Charles Astor Bristed, "The English Language in America" (1855)
It was less the specific American deviations or any peculiarities of American literary style than the peculiarly American power and predominance of the popular (and relatively classless) spoken language that had given the English language a new flavor in America... In America, the flow of linguistic influence was upward... The grand invention of American English was the new power it gave a churning, miscellaneous people to make a language of their own and to make the language their own.
The first half of the 19th century was the great age of foreign borrowing into the American language, for it was the first period of widespread contacts here between settlers of British and non-British origin.
To the Irish, we can trace few linguistic innovations. A scholar in 1855 said that their only effect on the language of New York had been the widespread use of shall (for will). They contributed few new words... Perhaps their greatest general influence was not through new words or new meanings but rather through reinforcement of certain archaic speech habits which had survived in Ireland... e.g. the use of the definite article as in French or German ("I had *the* measles."). The Irish (because, Mencken suggests, an Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no) gave us some of our most vivid intensive and stretch-forms, like yes-indeedy (1856), yes sir-ee (1846) and no-siree (1845). From the Irish, too, probably, came teetotal (1834) and teetotaler (1834).
No language could be American unless it was elastic enough to describe the unusual as if it were commonplace, the extravagant as if it were normal. The extravagance of the American experience and the inadequacy of the traditional language made tall talk as necessary a vehicle of the expansive age of American life as the keelboat or the covered wagon... To say simply that tall talk was the language of exaggeration missed the point. It was needed because the Old World notion of exaggeration had itself become inadequate... Strangely like 20th-century advertising language, tall talk was the language of the neither-true-not-false, the language of ill-defined magnificence.
"The language, like
the country, has a certain breadth and magnitude about it. A Western man
'sleeps so sound, it would take an earthquake to wake him'."
- Thomas Low Nichols
The line between the specific and the hyperbolic was anything but specific in the American experience. How could it be otherwise in the language? Fantasy often seemed tame beside the grandeur of fact. When before had the concrete and the fantastic been so hard to distinguish? Where else could tall talk be the language of calm and honest men? Where else was everyday experience so unmistakably tinged with the incredible?
Common or garden variety American provincialisms, if not melodramatic enough to be quotable nor extravagant to be laughable, yet were spicily concrete. Whatever you do, it's not my funeral (1854). Are you willing to face the music (1850)? Or, on that issue do you prefer to stay on the fence (1828)? Beware of the man with a chip on his shoulder (1840), for his anger will not peter out (1854). He may fly off the handle (1825). But keep a stiff upper lip (1815)...
"There is a figure of rhetoric adopted by the Americans, and much used in description," wrote the English traveler Morris Birkbeck in 1817; "it simply consists of the use of the present indicative, instead of the future subjunctive; it is called antipication. By its aid, what *may be* is contemplated as though it were in actual existence."
Much of what struck foreign observers as bizarre in American description was a new linguistic confusion of present and future, fact and hope. This became a mannerism, or even a mode of American speech. Statements which foreigners took for lies or braggadocio, American speaks intened to be vaguely clairvoyant. The American booster was simply speaking in the future tense, asserting what could not yet be disproved... Now, especially in the booming West, men acquired a habit of innocent overstatement. They seldom said less than they intended.
Most obvious was the use of aspiration words for institutions. "City" replaced "town", "university" designated an institution which in Europe might have been called a "college" and "college" became a name for almost any educational effort, however meager its resources... There were not misrepresentations but optimistic descriptions... Free to name as they pleased, Americans often cast their nomenclature in the mold of their hopes.
For example, what was the new nation to be called? The "United States of America" in the preamble of the Federal Constitution was anticipatory in at least three senses: It expressed hope that the new nation be united, that the components really be states, and that somehow they could be identified with the whole of America. Soon after the Revolution, the disadvantages of this name appeared. Most conspicuous was the fact that it yielded no precise adjective. Citizens of the new nation therefore were tempted, to the chagrin of other New World nationals, to monopolize the continental adjective, to consider citzens of the United States alone to be "American".
The literature of the new nation became accessory to the spoken word. The most distinctive, most influential, and most successful forms of the new American literature were expressions in print of spoken American... Much of it, at its best and most characteristic, would be the spoken word cast into print. It was a self-conscious, sound-conscious literature.
"In Europe, the work
of international alienation, which begins in diversity of language, is
consummated by diversity of race, institutions, and national prejudices...
While, on the other hand, throughout the vast regions included within the
limits of our republic, not only the same language, but the same national
government, the same laws and manners, and common ancestral associations
prevail. Mankind will here exist and act in a kindred mass, such as was
scarcely ever before congregated on the earth's surface."
- Edward Everett (1824)
[#7 Search For Symbols]
America offered many features of a Heroic Age - a half known wilderness
where men where men were threatened by untamed animals and hostile tribes
- and it is not surprising that there soon appeared American counterparts
of the ancient heroes. But the uncertainties of national boundaries and
aspirations and language, and the unsure line between fact and hope, had
their counterparts in uncertain boundaries between the heroic and the comic.
Precisely how European heroes of the Heroic Age - Achilles, Beowulf, Siegfried, Roland, King Arthur, and others - arose, is of course shrouded in mist. It seems likely that they first appeared in oral legend, only gradually finding their way into formal written language... The passage of centuries distilled and elevated and 'purified' the heroic characters, and self-conscious chroniclers gave their subjects grandeur and dignity.
All this was different in the United States. David Crockett (1786-1836) was still alive when oral legends about him began to circulate. He was not yet dead when his exploits, real or supposed, were already embalmed in print... Legends hastened into print before they could be purified of vulgarities and localisms. Second, the earliest printed versions were in a distinctively American form; they were not in literature but in 'subliterature' - writings on popular or vulgar subjects, belly-laugh humor, slapstick and tall tales, adventures for the simple-minded.
At the out break of
the Civil War, there were men alive who could remember the death of Washington;
he was still an emphatically real historical person. The national problem
was not how to make Washington historical; quite the contrary: how could
he be made into a myth?
...Much has been popularly forgotten of the true story of George Washington, especially of his later years. Few Americans remember that Washington had more than his share of enemies, that for all his life he was a controversial figure, and that during his presidency he was personally libelled with a venom aimed at few of his successors. .. He had already become the arch-villian for all those who opposed the Federalists, including Thomas Jefferson and his followers, but the climax of Washington's unpopularity come with Jay's Treaty, negotiated with Britain by John Jay, Washington's emissary, to resolve differences left unsettled at the end of the Revolution... When Washington died on December 14, 1799, he was anything but a noncontroversial figure... But he was destined to a stature in death which he had never attained in life... A deification which in European history might have required centuries, was accomplished here in decades.
In the United States, the very name of Washington had been honored uniquely. In 1791, while the Hero himself was still alive, the Commissioners for the proposed capital, although they had no legal authority to name the city, christened it the City of Washington. Despite the prevailing partisan bitterness, their choice was not effectively disputed. Washington, too, was the only person after the colonial period whose name was given to a state.
For at least a half-century after the Declaration of Independence, it was generally assumed that a history of the United States would consist of a history in turn of each of the states. The history of states and regions seemed primary; the history of the United States seemed contrived and derivative. Many years would pass before Americans would see their history the other way around.
"Our land is not more
the recipient of the men of all countries than their ideas. Annihilate
the past of any one leading nation of the world, and our destiny would
have been changed. Italy and Spain joined together for the great discovery
that opened America to emigration and commerce; France contributed to its
independence; the search for the origin of the language we speak carried
us to India; our religion is from Palestine... our arts come from Greece;
our jurisprudence from Rome; our maritime code from Russia; England taught
us the system of Representative Government... Our country stands, therefore,
more than any other, as the realisation of the unity of the race."
- George Bancroft (1854)
For many Americans, Bancroft was less historian than prophet, for he used the national past as testimony of the national mission. That mission was not preached in the accents of chauvinism or xenophobia. On the contrary, it was the mission of mankind that had revealed to him a peculiar destiny for America. In the very quest of the first Americans for their purpose, Bancroft had found a symbol of national purpose, confined not by political boundaries but only by the hopes of mankind.
The national flag and the national anthem which would dominate patriotic occasions in the 20th century became clearly defined only after the Civil War. The first flag under which the colonists fought in the War for Independence was that raised by Washington's continental army at Somerville, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1776. This so-called "Grand Union" flag consisted of the British cross of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue field, and thirteen alternate red and white stripes; it closely resembled the flag which the East India Company had been flying in colonial ports since the early 18th century.
"The springs of American
civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear
light of History. In appearance they are feeble; in reality, copious and
full of force. Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak
become mighty for good and evil and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand
forth as agents of Destiny."
- Francis Parkman (1865)
[#8 A Spacious Republic]
The United States would be the largest nation long to survive with a republican government, yet would comprise smaller and more numerous and more effective and more competitive independent subdivisions than did any of the republican governments of the Old World. The American political 'system' would be a witness both to the novelty of the New World and to the limits of all statesmen's abilities to predict, to project, or to circumscribe political growth. Political parties would be essential - the true centers of power and purpose - yet they would be hardly recognized by law. Elsewhere the making of a political nation had commonly been the work of a strong province - a Prussia, a Savoy, or an Ile de France - imposing its will on others; or of an invader - a William the Conqueror or a Napoleon - imposing his administration on a disorganized people. But the United States somehow became a nation spontaneously, strengthened by the very forces of diffusion. Of the many comforting illusions none was to be more seductive than that the American way of governing could remain unchanged, or that it could be imprisoned in one generation's conscious purpose.
grew out of colonial features... The large features of the composite empire
(Britain's in North America) were simple enough. A central authority "The
Crown") controlled foreign affairs, administered the army and the navy,
declared war and made peace, managed the post office (such as it was),
took charge of Indian affairs, and controlled certain lands within the
colonies and in the backlands... Each colony did most of its own legislating...
Underneath all, of course, lay the English common law, but even this the
colonists explicitly modified... With few changes, this would remain, in
outline, the American federal arrangement in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Long before these practical arrangements of a British Empire had evolved, the theoretical foundations of the modern state had been accumulating in western Europe - at least since the 15th century. But the imperial arrangements arose with very little regard to (and in many ways inconsistent with) the modern doctrine. A new theory of 'sovereignty', for example, had asserted that, essential to the very concept of a state, was a sinple supreme power, with the sole power to legislate. Feudalism had flourished on various theories of divided and distributed and reciprocal powers... As the modern state grew in Europe the dogma became more and more widespread that the power of government could not be divided.
The very ideas which had justified and explained the latest development in European government seemed to deny the American experience. Colonial life had produced a working federalism, while European life and thought had produced a dogmatic absolute called 'sovereignty'.... America was not merely an anachronism; it was an impossibility. This was nor the first nor last time European thought would prove inadequate to American realities.
When, in the 1760s, the British government tried to tighten its rein on the American colonies, London was defying the facts of life. As the conflict sharpened, British writers, hoping to exorcise the mysterious spirit of American rebellion, simply chanted more insistently their beautiful absolutes... "It is impossible," insisted Governor Hutchison of Massachusetts in 1773, "there should be two independent Legislatures in the one and the same state." In these loyal phrases, Britons asserted the impossibility of what had long since come into being. Until nearly the year of Independence, Britons were offering theories against which Americans were posing facts.
Too few Englishmen in high places dared face the full complexity of the unwelcome facts. Too few shared Edmund Burke's vision of the power of history, of the impossibility of erasing the experience of liberty by the logic of 'sovereignty'. "If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled," Burke warned, "which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery." Burke was right.
The Americans and the British were talking at cross purposes: the British were doctrinaire, appealing to the disembodied abstractions for which 'revolutionaries' have since become notorious; while the Americans were appealing to history and to experience.
From a European point of view, the creation of the United States was topsy-turvy. Its very existence was a paradox. Modern nations of Western Europe, like France or England, had been founded when a power at the center succeeded in dominating the local units. But the United States was born when 13 separate regional governments asserted their powers against the central authority in London. The nation was a by-product of the assertion of each colony's right to govern itself. The new nation was relatively free of chauvinism, for there had been no widespread, intense, or calculating national spirit... at least from the late 18th and early 19th century, nationalism in Europe was, for the most part, self-conscious, elaborately articulated, and passionate. The whole political future of the United States would be shaped by the fact that the nation had not been born in any ecstasy of nationalist passion.
The United States was not conceived in chauvinistic sin. A price of this virtue was that between the Revolution and the Civil War the national politics was overcast by a federal vagueness. But Americans would not permanently escape the price of chauvinism: the priec in hate and blood for the making of nations... Americans had their nation first and paid the price afterwards.
Before independence, Americans were both British subjects and citizens of Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, or some other colony. After independence, they ceased to be Britons, but had not yet become Americans. There was not yet an American nation to command their loyalty... their primary and continuing loyalty remained to their own colony, now becoming a state.
Although Americans lacked the feudal past which plagued European nation-makers in their efforts to unify their countries, there was an American counterpart. Here space played the role of time. If American history had been brief, American geography somehow made up the difference. In the great American emptiness, varied local governments, economies and traditions were separated from each other by wilderness and riers and mountains, which speedily created differences elsewhere created by centuries... European politics was primarily the by-product of history, American politics was primarily a by-product of geography.
The great symbol of both the strength and weakness of the American cause was the lack of a single colonial capital... During the first four years of the Revolution, every one of the most populous towns (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston) had fallen to British troops without decisive effect. If the American colonies seemed a 13-headed monster to any colonist who wished them to act in unison, this was also a great advantage against enemies: there was no one head or center where an enemy could deliver a mortal blow.
In Great Britain, the 'constitution' was the whole sum of charters, statutes, declarations, traditions, informal understandings, habits, and attitudes by which the government was actually administered. Technically speaking then, there was no such thing as a British statute being invalid because it was 'unconstitutional': any British statute could change the constitution... And there was thus nothing more definite, nor more uncertain, than the British constitution; it was only another name for the way things really worked.
It is not precisely clear when the colonies gave up hope of being re-united to the British Empire. Perhaps not until about January 1776, did they cease to consider themselves 'colonies' who were fighting only to force a wiser policy on the home government.
The generation that made the Federal constitution was haunted by the suspicion that republican government somehow would not function over a large area... Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton drew from history the lesson that the vast extent of the United States made it likely that a durable central government would have to verge on monarchy... But some, less pessimistic, began to imagine that the example which all earlier history could not supply might be found in America. James Madison, for example, in the Federalist (#10) argued hopefully that a great extent of territory, with its great variety of interests, might actually protect the citizens' rights: "Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens..."
Dreams of a new empire long inspired Thomas Jefferson. In 1809, he suggested to President Madison that Napoleon might be willing to let the United States have Cuba. Then, Jefferson went on, by adding Canada, "we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation..."
Before the Civil War, the slavery issue dominated this (admissions of new states) as it did other questions. After the struggle over the admission of Missouri as a slate state in 1821, the balance of forces in the national government depended on the internal history of the Territories. This reversed the flow of forces under the old British Empire, when government in the colonies had been shaped by the accidents of internal politics in London. The existence of a whole continent from which to make political counterweights in the delicate equilibrium between North and South, Free and Slave States, helped keep sectional issues alive. States were admitted and Territories created in pairs: Free and Slave. Even after the Civil War, the Omnibus Bill of 1889 simultaneously admitted four states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and Montana) so as not to upset the party balance: two were said to be Democratic, the other two Republican.
It is not surprising
that neither Madison nor his fellow framers of the Federal Constitution
could imagine the sort of political parties that would arise in the new
nation. Party government in the United States, as Lord Bryce observed near
the end of the 19th century, "is so unlike what a student of Federal Government
could have expected or forseen, that it is the thing of all others which
any one writing about America ought to try to portray."
...But in the long run, what made feasible Madison's and Jefferson's dream of a spacious republic was the peculiar, and very practical, role of American political parties. The geographical constituency - not an ideological nor an interest group - was to be the basic unit of American party politics. And the parties too, were to be "partly national; partly federal."
The tendencies of American political life were centrifugal - expressed in the American Revolution and in the secessionist tradition which long survived the Revolution. As we have seen, the American nation was not the product of any grand national passion... the effective political unifying of the nation was left to the political parties. They focused practical energies and enthusiasms, and they collected local, state and national efforts, to build a strong nation. They were different from political parties known before, or any that have developed elsewhere since.... They associated separate political units in all sorts of ways, which could not have been set down in any written laws or constitutions.
"In America, the great
moving forces are the parties. The government counts for less than in Europe,
the parties count for more; and the fewer have become their principles
and the fainter their interest in those principles, the more perfect has
become their organization."
- Lord Byrce
As in many other departments of American life - in religion, in education, in the very making of new communities — ideology was displaced by organization. Sharp distinctions of thought and purpose were overshadowed by the need to get together on nearly self-defining common purposes. So long as problems of American political life remained compromisable, the political parties were the great arenas of compromise. When this ceased to be true, the nation itself would be on the brink of dissolution; and then the political parties, like the nation itself, would have to be reconstructed.
More recent scholarly works have too commonly tended to become efforts to arbitrate among other scholars' views... Biographies still happily remain a refuge of the amateur. These tend to be free from academic jargon and pedantic quibbles, and admit us to the drama and conflict of the age.
~ Quotes from Part
One - The Colonial Experience
~ Quotes from Part Three - The Democratic Experience
~ Quotes about American
~ James McPherson - Battle Cry of Freedom
~ David Hackett Fischer - Albion's Seed
~ Alan Taylor - American Colonies
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