Selected quotes and excerpts from the final part of Daniel J. Boorstin's epic personal trilogy of the unique American experience, covering the century following the Civil War (1868-1969).
The century after the Civil War was to be an Age of Revolution — of countless, little noticed revolutions, which occured not in the halls of legislatures or on battlefields or on the barricades but in homes and farms and factories and schools and stores, across the landscape and in the air — so little noticed because they came so swiftly, because they touched Americans everywhere and every day. Not merely the continent but human experience itself, the very meaning of community, of time and space, of present and future, was being revised again and again; a new democratic world was being invented and was being discovered by Americans wherever they lived.
In 1868, as the first
transcontinental railroad was nearing completion, Charles Francis Adams
Jr, predicted the impending transformation of American experience:
"Here is an enormous, an incalculable force practically let loose suddenly upon mankind ; exercising all sorts of influences, social, moral, and political ; precipitating upon us novel problems which demand immediate solution ; banishing the old before the new is half matured to replace it ; bringing the nations into close contact before yet the antipathies of race have begun to be eradicated ; giving us a history full of changing fortunes and rich in dramatic episodes. Yet, with the curious hardness of a material age, we rarely regard this new power otherwise than as a money-getting and time-saving machine... but not many of those who deal in its securities, or live by means of it, or legislate for it, or who fondly believe they control it, ever stop to think of it as, with perhaps two exceptions, the most tremendous and farreaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind... Perhaps if the existing community would take now and then the trouble to pass in review the changes it has already witnessed it would be less astounded at the revolutions which continually do and continually must flash before it ; perhaps also it might with more grace accept the inevitable, and cease from useless attempts at making a wholly new world conform itself to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization."
~ Part 1 — The
~ Part 2 — Consumption Communities
~ Part 3 — Statistical Communities
~ Part 4 — The Urban Quest for Place
~ Part 5 — Levelling Times and Places
~ Part 6 — Mass Producing The Moment
~ Part 7 — The Thinner Life of Things
~ Part 8 — Language, Knowledge and the Arts
~ Part 9 — The Search for Novelty
~ Part 10 — Mission and Momentum
~ Book 1 — The Colonial Experience
~ Book 2 — The National Experience
[#1 The Go Getters]
Amercians reached out to one another. A new civilization found new ways of holding men together - less and less by creed or belief, by tradition or by place, more and more by common effort and common experience, by the apparatus of daily life, by their ways of thinking about themselves. Americans were now held together less by their hopes than by their wants, by what they made and what they bought, and by how they learned about everything. They were held together by the new names they gave to the things they wanted, to the things they owned, and to themselves.
The years after the Civil War when the continent was only partly explored were the halcyon days of the Go-Getters. They went in search of what others had never imagined was there to get. The Go-Getters made something out of nothing, they brought meat out of the desert, found oil in the rocks, and brought light to millions. They discovered new resources, and where there seemed to be none to be discovered, they invented new ways of profiting from others who were trying to invent and discover. Lawyers, who in the Old World had been staid props of tradition, became a Go-Getting profession, profiting from the hopes of others, from the successes of frustrations of boosters and transients. Federalism itself became a profitable commodity, making business for lawyers and hotelkeepers and bartenders, and building improbable new cities. The moralism of Americans, even their high-minded desire to prohibit vice, itself became a resource, created new enterprises, accumulating fortunes for those who satisfied illicit wants. All over the continent - on the desert, under the soil, in the rocks, in the hearts of cities - appeared suprising new opportunities.
Americans would become the world's greatest meat eaters. In the Old World, beef was the diet of lords and men of wealth. For others it was a holiday prize. But American millions would eat like lords - because of the efforts of American Go-Getters in the half-charted West. The Western combination of desert, inedible forage and unmarketable wild animals offered a puzzling, enticing opportunity to men in search of new wealth. It was seized by Western cattlemen and cowboys. Their great opportunity was to use apparently useless land that belonged to nobody.
The cattleman-trailblazer was as essential to the Western cattle busines as the railroad builder was to the great industries of the East. Seizing the peculiar opportunity of unsettled, unfenced America, he made beef-on-the-hoof into its own transportation. The rewards were rich when steers, bought for $3 or $4 a head in Texas, sold for $35 or $40 a head up North.
To deliver that first big herd of Texas stock to Wyoming, three thousand head of cattle across 800 miles, required no less skill than to command an ocean liner across the Atlantic in uncertain weather. The cattle, of course, moved on their own legs, but the vehicle that carried them was the organized drive. The cowboy crew gave shape to the mile-long herd, kept the cattle from bunching up into a dense, unwieldly mass or from stringing out... At the front were two of the most experienced men (called 'pointers'), who navigated the herd, following the course set by the foreman. Bringing up the rear were three steady cowboys whose job it was "to look out for the weaker cattle"... This was called "keeping up the corners". The rest of the crew were stationed along the sides, the "swing", to keep the herd compact and of uniform width... Controlling the speed of the herd called for experience.
At night, guards making their rounds would and whistle "so that the sleeping herd may know that a friend and not an enemy is keeping vigil over their dreams". A well-serenaded herd would be less apt to stampede... Apart from Indians, the great sudden peril was the stampede. And nothing was more terrifying than a stampede at night when three thousand cattle would suddenly rouse to become a thundering mass.
"All in all my years on the trail were the
happiest I have lived. There were many hardships and dangers, of course,
that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery; but when all went
well there was no other life so pleasant."
- Charles Goodnight
Troubled by how to establish property in cattle if the land on which they roamed belonged to nobody in particular, cattlemen had fixed a new set of symbols, burned into the hide of each animal. They found a secure sense of property in these improvised documents of title. Where people and their cattle were on the move, far from courts and lawyers, paper documents were of little use... Better make the cattle into their own documents of title. Then wherever a man took his cattle he could prove his ownership. The technical literalism of a London chancery lawyer did not exceed that of a skilled cattleman interpreting the marks on a cow that bore many brands... A calf, at its first roundup, was branded by a red-hot iron carrying a pattern, and pressed against its hide... It was important to have a brand that a thief could not easily alter.
In England the fundamental common-law distinction was between land and everything else: between "real property" (land and other forms of property which were attached to the land) and "movables" (personal property or chattels). That distinction seemed adequate to settled, crowded old England, where the basic fact was ownership of land, and where that ownership was ancient and most precisely defined. Medieval feudalism, in the age when the English common law was born, was at once a system of government and a system of land ownership. To own a piece of land meant to possess a fragment of government. But most of the land of the great American West was for all practical purposes at once ownerless and governmentless. You could not tell whose cow it was by seeing whose land it was on. For the land was everybody's... In the American West the old distinctions would not fit.. Cattle out there were mobile property, self-moving property, that could care for itself and find its own way across the roadless expanse.
Go-Getter morality brought an age of Good Bad Men and Bad Good Men. While sheriffs and marshals were in the pay of rustlers and cattle barons, outlaws and vigilantes were taking oaths to "enforce the law". A Go-Getter's loyalty was his willingess to stick by his guns to avenge a friend, to defend his cattle, or to secure a fortune... It was far easier to recognize a friend or an enemy, to tell a good proposition when you saw one, than to know whether or not the "law" was on your side.
"If a willingess to take another's life on
slight or half-proven cause was the sign of a bad men, Wild Bill was surely
one. Yet if a willingess to risk one's life to defend the law and the right
was a sign of a good man, Wild Bill was surely one of those, too."
- General Custer, on Wild Bill Hickok
The six-shooter, a stepchild of the West, would for the first time provide a portable, rapid-shooting repeater which put "law enforcement" in the reach of any trained arm. The perfection of the six-shooter was a response to the special needs of Texas cattlemen in the treeless Great Plains. Menaced by Comanche Indians, the settlers who went to Texas from the US in the early 19th century, found themselves at a dangerous disadvantage. Their encounters with Indians were commonly on horseback. But the skillful Comanche could ride 300 yards and shoot 20 arrows in the time it took the Texan to reload his firearm once... Probably the first use of the six-shooter in a mounted battle against Indians was at the Pedernales in 1840 when some 15 Texas Rangers defeated about 70 Comanches.
American needs for new devices to explore and exploit the continent, and the random quest for fortunes, produced myriad new techniques, machines and gadgets. While the inventor himself might be a lonely, unwordly genius, there was commonly somebody else nearly who saw the chance to make a fortune. Those calculating bystanders were often lawyers. There was hardly a major invention in the century after the Civil War which did not become a legal battlefield... Legal battles went on the decades, but regardless of which inventor or businessman won the battle, the lawyers always won the war. They emerged not only with substansial feeds, but also with expert knowledge of the company's righrs and vulnerabilities that not infrequently left them in control of the firm. Beginning as pilots, they ended as captains.
In 1929, the first year for which Department of Commerce statistics are available, some $689 million was spent for legal services. In 1968, the figure had reached $5.2 billion... "It is almost unbelievable, but true," observed Martin Mayer in his popular survey of lawyers, "that nobody has any very precise notion of what is done for the money."
"A town that can't support one lawyer can
always support two."
- Old American adage
Marriage, divorce and celibacy had of course (long before Henry VIII) been a battleground for competing jurisdictions... The Roman Catholic Church included marriage among the seven sacraments... Abuses in the Church's handling of matters of marriage had been among the arguments for the Protestant Reformation. Marriage, according to Martin Luther, was not a sacrament, but "a secular and outward thing, having to do with wife and children, house and home, and with other matters that belong to the realm of government, all of which have been completely subject to reason." Therefore the rules of marriage and divorce "should be left to the lawyers and made subject to the secular government. The New England Puritans took Luther's distinction so seriously that they not only required marriage to be solemnized by a civil magistrate but in 1647 actually forbade the preaching of a wedding sermon... Before the end of the 17th century, the General Court of Massachusetts felt secure enough on this matter to allow ministers as well as justices of the peace to perform the marriage ceremony.
Nevada gambling flourished as a border industry - just over the border from illegality and from other states. None of the Nevada gambling resorts was located near the centre of the state. Reno in the west was a scant dozen miles from the California boundary.
"The high level of lawlessness," Walter Lippmann observed in 1931, is maintained by the fact that Americans desire to so many things which they also desire to prohibit."
Crime as a Service Institution: What made gambling an American enterprise were the peculiarly American oppoprtunities to organize illegal activities into nationwide big business. Several circumstances made this possible: a federal system with a confusing variety of state regulations, and each state's jurisdiction locally confined; a national government with powers to circumscribed that it was compelled to use control over "interstate commerce" and the power to tax as a substitute for a national criminal code; the continuing influx from abroad of new Americans, energetic and ambitious, of various religions, ignorant of and indifferent to local mores; a national tradition of golden opportunities for everybody, but where lawful and respectable opportunities appeared to have been pre-empted by earlier comers; a mobile people in a fluid society, where social position could be bought with money; a vast continent with speedy techniques of communication and transportation, and lots of places to hide. Brooding over all this was the national tradition, opportunity, and challenge to organize. Moralistic and unrealistic laws, as Walter Lippmann explained, provided the underworld with its own effective protective tariff. The result, in the 20th century, was perhaps the most flourishing array of outlaw enterprises ever found in a modern nation.
"I make my money by supplying a public demand.
If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people
in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference between us is that
I sell and they buy. Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a business
man. When I sell liquor, it's bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on
a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it's hospitality."
- Al Capone
The prominence of Italians in the annals of organized crime in the early and mid-20th century tells less about the Italian immigrants themselves than about the situation they found when thye arrived. They were the last of the major immigrant groups to reach American shores. Consqeuntly, the sociologist Daniel Bell has pointed out, they found the more obvious and respectable paths to success pre-empted by the earlier comers. Most of the Italian immigrants of the late 19th century were peasants with few of the skills hat could help them rise in an urban, industrial world. The Italians, Jacob Riis observed, had "come in at the bottom". Even within the Catholic Chuch, where they comprised a considerable proportion of the communicants, they had little opportunity for leadership. As late as 1960, when Italian-Americans numbered one-sixth of American Catholics, there was not one Italian-American boshop of the hundred Catholic bishops... The Irish-Americans, who had arrived in large numbers a half-century before the Italians, were in charge of the American Catholic hierarchy. The Italian community, then, as Bell observes, had to find their opportunities in the interstices, in enterprises not already pre-empted, in those which required neither capital nor specialized training.
After the repeal of Prohibition, the most promising business opportunities created by law were no longer in alcohol. Street prostitution, which had been a rich resource for illegal enterprise in the late 19th century, also was losing its commercial promise. The telephone, which had facilitated violations of Prohibition, also brought into being the high-priced "call girl" and made her less conspicuous and so less subject to arrest. Changing sexual morals, looser as the century advanced, and medical innovations reducing the risks from casual sexual encounters, made the sexual commodity so available that it was harder to sell. As Alexander Wollcott complained, prostitution, like acting, was being "ruined by amateurs"... The profits of illegal gambling, however, increased with the years... By mid-century, organized crime had turned successfully from bootlegging alcoholic beverages to pushing narcotics. While in the days of Prohibition the bootleggers had aimed to satisfy a demand that was already there, when organized crime turned to narcotics it also undertook to stimulate the demand. This in turn created problems of new proportions, without precedent in American history.
[#2 Consumption Communities]
A Democracy of Clothing: In the middle of the 19th century, European travelers to the US were struck by a new American peculiarity. Just as travelers before them in the 18th century had noted the difficulty of distinguishing between American social classes by the habits of speech, and had noted that master and servant, even in the South, spoke in accents far more similar than did their English counterparts, they now noted the strange similarities of clothing. In America it was far more difficult than in England to tell a man's social class by what he wore. The Hungarian politician, Francis Pulszky, traveling the country in 1852, missed the colorful Old World distinctions... He lamented that in New York, "no characteristical costumes mark the different grades of society, which, in Eastern Europe, impress the foreigner at once with the varied occupations and habits of an old country"... Before the end of the 19th century, the American democracy of clothing would become still more astonishing to foreign eyes, for by then the mere wearing of clothes would be an instrument of community, a way of drawing immigrants into a new life. Men whose ancestors had been accustomed to peasant's tatters or the craftsman's leather apron could show by a democratic costume that they were as good as, or not very different from, the next man. If, as the Old World proverb went, "Clothes make the man", the New World's new way of clothing would help make new men.
In the 20th century Americans would be the best-clothed and perhaps the most homogenously dressed, industrial nation. It is hard to imagine how it could have happened without the sewing machine.
"On every sea are floating the Singer Machines;
along every road pressed by the foot of civilized man this tireless ally
of the world's great sisterhood is going upon its errand of helpfulness.
Its cheering tune is understood no less by the study German matron than
by the slender Japanese maiden; it sings as intelligibly to the flaxen-haired
Russian peasant-girl as to the dark-eyed Mexican Senorita. It needs no
interpreter, whether it sings amid the snows of Canada or upon the pampas
of Paraguay, the Hindoo Mother and the Chicago maiden are tonight making
the self-same stitch; the untiring feet of Ireland's fair-skinned Nora
are driving the same tradle with the tiny understandings of China's tawny
daughter; and thus American machines, American brains and American money
are bringing the women of the whole world into one universal kinshop and
- An 1880 Singer brochure, "The Story of the Sewing Machine"
Alexander Hamilton had noted in his "Report on Manufactures" (1791) that four-fifths of the American people's clothing were made in their own households for themselves. Only the rich could afford to employ tailors... A ready-made-clothing industry did not begin to develop until the early decades of the 19th century. At first only the cheapest grades of clothes could be bought in stores.
Between the Civil War and the beginning of the new century there appeared grand and impressive edifices - Palaces of Consumption - in the principal cities of the nation and in the upstart cities that hoped to become great metropolises... The distinctive institution which came to be called the department store was a large retail shop, centrally located in a city, doing a big volume of business, and offering a wide range of merchandise... The new department stores, unlike the elegant exclusive shops of Old World capitals, were palatial, public and inviting. Cast iron made it easier than ever to make buildings impressive on the outside, and on the inside to offer high ceilings, and wide, unbroken expanses for appealing display... The windows at street level were no longer merely openings to admit light and sun, but vivid advertisements... The shop itself, the stock, and the goods themselves had become a powerful new form of advertising. Now for the first time the society's full range of material treasure would be laid out for all to see.
Public transportation did not appear in American cities until the second half of the 19th century; until then the ordinary citizen commonly shopped within walking distance, that is to say, within a radius of two miles. A city merchant drew his customers from those who could walk to his shop from their house. This helped explain the importance of the neighborhood community. Almost all a man's activities, including his buying and selling, were with people who lived nearby and who as neighbours were very likely known to him personally. A neighborhood community was a walking community: of passers-by, of casual streetcorner encounters, of sidewalk greetings and doorway conversations. Streetcars in the cities helped change all this... We have become so accustomed to public transportation in our cities that we forget what a revolution in city life came with the first cheap public transportation.
Along with the centralizing influence of the streetcar, which brought city dwellers to department stores, came a new indrawing power over customers' minds and desires: the daily newspapers with a large circulation concentrated in the cities. The department store, through its heavy newspaper advertising, contributed substabsially to the success of these papers, and so helped keep them independent of subsidy by political parties. In this way the department store, like other large advertisers, indirectly contributed toward the political impartiality of American news reporting would contrast sharply with the partisan-dominated press of France, Italy and some other countries... Just as the rise of the suburbs in the late 19th century was inseparable from the story of the streetcar, so the rise of the department store was one with the rise of newspaper advertising... City newspapers had become streetcars of the mind. They were putting the thoughts and desires of tens of thousands of people in the new cities on tracks, drawing them to centers where the joined the hasty fellowship of new consumption communities.
The department store, as Emile Zola observed in France, "democratized luxury". We have forgotten how revolutionary was the new principle of free admission for the whole public... One no longer needed be a "person of quality" to view goods of quality. In this new democracy of consumers it was assumed that any man might be a buyer.
The builders of these new nationwide consumption communities ("chain stores") met bitter opposition from local merchants, hometown boosters and champions of neighborhoods who stood for the local community. The keepers of the old general stores had fought the big-city department stores, they would also fight RFD (free rural postal delivery), they opposed parcel post, and they attacked the mail-order "monopolies". The menace of "chain stores", they said, was a threat to the whole American way of life... The chain stores, like other large enterprises, had been guilty of some abuses. But they were unstoppable institutions in the movement to larger and larger consumption communities. They anti-chain-store movement, like the anti-RFD, was a rearguard action. Its spokesmen spoke for the dying past of the general store, the village post office, the one-room schoolhouse and the friendly corner drugstore. Jeremiads against the chain store really expressed bewilderment at the dissolving of the neighborhood community... The chain store announced and symbolized a new kind of community. The new consumption communities were, of course, shallower in their loyalties, more superficial in their services. But they were ubiquitous, somehow touching the American consumer at every waking moment and even while he slept... Man was no longer local. As the American population adopted mobility as normal, the new arrivals in a suburb or a city who might not know their neighbors would at least feel somewhat at home in their A&P (where they knew where to find each item) or in their Walgreen's (where familiar brands abounded).
In the late 19th century, the great American railroad network combined with other forces to draw the remote farmer and his family into the new consumption communities. The new American institutions which accomplished this were the mail-order houses... The American farmer especially needed some kind of community because certain facts of American life had tended to keep him from living close to his neighbour. The Homestead Act of 1862 required a settler to live on his claim for five years in order to perfect his title. This gave a character to American farm life very different from that of the Old World peasant, who lived in a village and then went out every day to the plots that he cultivated. Even if every homesteader had had no more than a quarter-section (160 acres), and every quarter-section was actually homesteaded, under the rigid rectangular system of surveying public lands for sale, the average distance between farmhouses would still be at least a half-mile... The isolation varied from place to place, with the climate and the terrain. The lonely prairies of the great Northwest, in the Dakotas or Nebraska, taxed the endurance of sociable men and women.
Rural Free Delivery citified the country, and changed the pace of the farmer's life... Some farmer who never before had a chance to receive a daily ration of fresh news from the city, gorged themselves with two or even three daily papers. In 1911 more than a billion newspapers and magazines were delivered over rural routes; by 1929 the figure had reached nearly two billion... For the most part, the city dailies which now reached the farmer for the first time brought him the news and advertisements of a wider world. This was a more cold-blooded world, where the happenings concerned people the farmer never knew and would never see. The country weekly which he had once picked up himself at the local post office had brought him what William Allen White called "the sweet, intimate story of life". And White was not merely being sentimental in 1916 when he described the dissolving world of the country newspapers:
"When the girl in the glove-counter marries
the boy in the wholesale house, the news of their wedding is good for a
40-line wedding notice, and the 40 lines in the country paper gives them
self-respect. When in due course we know that their baby is a 12-pounder
named Grover or Theodore or Woodrow, we have that neighborly feeling that
breeds real democracy. When we read of death in that home we can mourn
with them that mourn..."
The old world, where so much of "news" concerned people one knew, the world of the neighborhood community, was slipping away. In its place there was forming a world where more of the communities to which a man belonged were comminities of the unseen.
Advertising could not be understood as simply another form of salemanship. It aimed at something new - the creation of consumption communities... The primary argument of the salesman was personal and private: this is hat is perfect for you (singular). His focus was on the individual... The primary argument of the advertisement was public and general: this hat is perfect for you (plural)... And an advertisement was, in fact, a form of insurance to the consumer that by buying this commodity, by smoking this brand of cigarette, or by driving this make of car he would not find himself alone... Surely a million customers can't be wrong!
...The arts and sciences of advertising, then, were the techniques of discovering consumption communities, of arousing and preserving loyalty to them. Toward this end there developed a new iconography of consumption communities, which transformed the old world of brand names and trademarks.
Of course, "communities" of Uneeda Biscuit buyers and of other brand-name consumers were held together by much thinner, more temporary ties than those that had bound earlier Americans. But they drew together in novel ways people who might not otherwise have been drawn together at all - people who did not shae a religious or political ideology, who were not voyaging together on the prairie nor building new towns. The peculiar importance of American consumption communities made it easier to assimilate, to "Americanize", the many millions who arrived here in the century after the Civil War. Joining consumption communities became a characteristic American mode of acculturation.
One of the most distinctive features of the American Christmas was Santa Claus, who was speedily transformed out of all recognition from his Old World character. There had been a real St. Nicholas, a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, who became the patron saint of Russia, and of mariners, thieves, virgins, and children. According to legend, St. Nicholas had saved three poor virgins from being forced to sell their virtue, by throwing a purse of gold through their windows on three successive nights.
In a nation of consumption communities, there was a tendency for all festivals to somehow become Festivals of Consumption. Mother's Day was an example. Something like a Mother's Day - the fourth Sunday before Easter, a day to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus - had been observed in European countries. "Mothering Sunday" was when servants and apprentices were given a day off to "go-a-mothering", to go visit their mothers. Sometimes the eldest son would bring his mother a "mothering cake", which was the shared by the family. There appears to be no evidence that Mother's Day was an American holiday before 1907. In that year, an enterprising young lady from West Virginia, Ann Jarvis, much attached to her mother who had died two years before, consulted the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker about a suitable way to honor the nation's mothers. He advised her to campaign for a national observance... The simply old "mothering cake" was transmuted into a whole range of Mother's Day gift merchandise. The practice of noting the day by going to church (wearing a red carnation for a living mother or a white carnation for one deceased) blossomed into a bonanza for telegraph and telephone companies, candy shops, florists, jewellers, and cosmetic manufacturers. Like other American festivals which had originated in church, Mother's Day ended in the department store.
[#3 Statistical Communities]
"The science of statistics is the chief instrumentality
through which the progress of civilizations is now measured, and by which
its development hereafter will be largely controlled."
- S.N.D. North
A democratic nation, like any other, needed some way of distinguishing its groups of citizens. While Old World class distinctions would not do, there were certain obvious advantages to numbers. Statistical communities, creatures of the new science of statistics, provided ways of clustering people into groups that made sense, without necessarily making invidious distinctions. Numbers were neutral. No number was 'better' than another. The numbering of people (one person, one vote) itself seemed to symbolize the equality at which a democratic society aimed. From their very nature, numbers offered a continuous series, a refuge from those sharp leaps between 'classes' found in other societies... But statistical communities had their own problems. The social 'science' which brought these communities into being could reassure the citizen that we was average or normal. But while the neutral language of numbers made no invidious distinctions, neither did it help the man who needed a moral guide... After mid-20th century the nation which had grown in an effort to fulfill the rule of the 'majority' gave a politically potent new meaning to the numerical word 'minority'. And Americans went in desperate, sometimes futile, quest of moralistic meanings for what were once purely statistical terms.
Federal politics had committed us, from our national beginnings, to a special interest in numbers. One of the Great Compromises at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787, when the large and the small states agreed upon a two-branch federal legislature, established a House of Representatives where the people would be represented in proportion to the population.
"While nothing is more uncertain that the
duration of a single life, nothing is more certain than the average duration
of a thousand lives."
- Elizur Wright, insurance pioneer
Insurance was no American invention. Even in ancient times the risks of merchants and mariners, the dangers from disaster at sea and fire on land induced people who had large stakes to lose to pay others to share their risks. But only in the US after the mid-19th century did insurance become a democratic, universal institution. Mass-produced, democratized insurance - insurance for everybody and against almost anything - came in the century after the Civil War and was a product of American civilization. While not all citizens had property worth insuring, every citizen had a life... Though for any individual nothing was more uncertain or democratic than the time of his death, it was within human power, by accumulating funds, to cushion the shock for those who remained. Life insurance, then, if spread among those who were not wealthy, was actually a welfare institution: a way to help the needy, the widows and the orphaned... When communities were local, friends and neighbors were nearby, ready and willing to help in disaster. The church tried to look after widows and orphans... But the attenuation and the stretching of communities created new needs. People who could not confidently rely on their neighbours, people whose relatives had moved to remote parts of the continent, had to find other security... Since insurance would not work for small numbers, it was necessarily a democratic commodity. So it was not surprising that the first flourishing of insurance into a gargantuan institution, rivaled in economic power only by government itself, came in the first large-scale democratic nation.
The "Father of Life Insurance", Elizur Wright,
came to the enterprise not as a businessman, but as a reformer. We do not
ordinarily think of life insurance as an outlet for the passionate crusader.
But Wright was a passionate man, and the evangelical fervor which he at
first directed against slavery he later turned to support insurance. He
saw insurane as both a humanitarian institution to serve widows and orphans,
and a social invention to multiply a man's resources and extend them after
It was no accident that salesmanship had a renaissance in the merchandising of insurance, the invisible commodity. For insurance was complicated and required detailed explanation to everybody, but especially to the democratic millions who in America would have the opportunity to become insurance customers. Before the mid-20th century, certain kinds of American insurance (for example, for airline passengers at airports), following the trend of American merchandising, would be packaged, mass-produced and machine-vended. But the abstract and complex qualities of insurance, together with its intimate and personal aspects, continued to keep it as a last preserve for the salesman against advertising.
The democratization of life insurance, the rise of the Equitable Life Assurance and other private insurance enterprises, had created enormous new pools of power. Like the Ford Motor Company, Equitable could not have been created except by enlisting the participation of American millions. And the great insurance companies became leviathans, which only the people as a whole had the power to create, but which the people as a whole found hard to control.
The Rediscovery of Poverty: The rise of Protestantism and modern capitalism had somehow made a virtue of the personal qualities required to become rich, and so had begun to put poverty in a new light. Of course, there were always the "deserving poor", whose poverty, due to illness or misfortune, was no fault of their own. But the prevailing view in Britain and the US well into the 19th century was that poverty properly concerned government only when a man's desperate economic condition had made him a public charge or a threat to society. The old "Poor Laws" aimed to prevent starvation and to forestall crime. Like the other rules of public sanitation, they were directed more at keeping life safe and pleasant for the well-to-do rather than at improving the lot of the impoverished.
"The best way of doing good to the poor," Benjamin Franklin had urged, "is, not making them easy in poverty, but leading them or driving them out of it." It was an American axiom, then, confirmed by both fact and myth, that only a peculiarly unlucky man could not rise out of poverty if he had the will. This individualistic view, which explained poverty by personal failings and saw the consequences mainly for the individual, would not long survive the American condition. Such a view was alien to the rising American concern for a standard of living. And when individual well-being was asssessed not in treasure but in quality of life and in opportunities for living, the poverty of the poor man become a misfortune also for his better-off neighbors. Were they not being deprived of responsible fellow citizens, of potential customers, of clients and patients? ...A proper American standard of living included, of course, freedom from threats of disease, violence and crime, freedom from modern versions of "those poor who pesters the streets of London"... In America then, not merely pauperism (starving and destitution) but poverty (unfulfilled opportunity) was a social menace.
By the mid-19th century, in Europe and elsewhere, revulsion against the old individualist view of poverty had begun to take the form of socialism and sparked a revolution against the whole economic system. While in the United States too a few revolutionary voices were heqard, the more social view of poverty tended to take other forms... The old problem of dependency - the social burden of those who could not feed, clothe or shelter themselves - became the newer problem of insufficiency. By the beginning of the 20th century, American concern had gradually turned from a specific worry over the public cost of keeping the impoverished from starving or stealing, to a more general worry about those who (in pioneer social worker Robert Hunter's phrase) were receiving "too little of the common necessities to keep themselves at their best".
[#4 The Urban Quest for Place]
What was remarkable about the American immigrant experience was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not that in a single nation American immigrants became assimilated, but that so many different peoples somehow retained their separate identities. The United States never entirely lost the flavor of Diaspora. Other nations had dissolved peoples into one. This nation became one by finding ways of allowing peoples to remain several... American national politics would remain a politics of regions and of groups of different immigrant origin. "Hyphenated Americans" - Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and so on - would include a substansial part of the population... Immigrant groups continued to play as important a role here as did religious sects or economic or social classes in Europe. But there were important differences between the migrations which had peopled the US during the colonial period and those which brought the largest numbers in the first century of national life. In an age of colonists, lathe numbers of immigrants had been led by men with a vision who aimed to build a certain kind of community... Their recollections of the old were less compelling that their visions of the new. Different visions made at least thirteen different loyalties. And these made American federalism, the United States of America. Afterward came the age of emigrants... While the American arrivals in the colonial age were dominated by those people who came with a purpose, later arrivals were dominated by those who left for a reason and were in search of a purpose. The colonist's vision was dominated by his destination, the emigrant's by his place of departure.
In the 20th century no other nation of comparable size had been so dominated by memories of its origin. Groups which came from Europe in the 19th century were held together in the 20th by their family memories, and even for nostalgia for the places from which they fled. And their later American experience, their place in American life and American politics were permanently shaped by the peculiar circumstances of their immigration. Although the Old World experience of each immigrant group had been different, the opportunities that the New World offered them was quite similar. Each group in its own way kept its identity, and by keeping its identity secured a placein the nation.
These peoples had come from an Old World that was overwhelmingly rural, and the great bulk of them were peasants, farmers or villagers who had lived close to the land. When they were being drawn into American life, in the century after the Civil War, the nation every year was becoming more urban; and most of them had to find a place in an urban wilderness.
The Irish were the largest single group to arrive in the half-century before the Civil War... Many found that they had changed their locale but not their fortunes. Irish paupers became American paupers. But what was remarkable was that so many of these victims of centuries of oppression actually attained power and respectability in a strange country. To those who were lucky and energetic and ambitious, America did offer a new life, first to a few leaders, then to more and more of the anonymous thousands. When Joyce's Stephen Dadalus said, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," he summed up Irish history. And the United States was to be the place of awakening.
Father John T Roddan, editor of the Boston "Pilot", boasted that the Irish, like the Jews, were indestructible, with "more lives than the blackest cat... killed so many times that her enemies are tired of killing her..."
Their emigrant frame of mind was peculiarly open to new opportunities. The practicality of the Puritans had come from their conviction that they were on the right track. Their main problem, then, was not to discover a purpose or to develop an ideology, but to apply and fulfil their orthodoxy in America. The practicality and adaptability of the Irish came from quite opposite causes. Determined simply to escape the Old World they knew, they were anxious to discover any and all opportunities of a New World. And so they were ready to do whatever had to be done. In a word, the Puritans had been colonists, the Irish were emigrants. Much of American vitality came from the fact that so many of the newcomers brought this emigrant frame of mind. A peculiar strength of the Irish and other 19th century emigrants was their lack of a clear limiting purpose. Held together by recollections, sometimes of a past that never was, the Irish 'remembered' the rural delights of their Emerald Isle, just as the Jews 'remembered' the cozy community of the ghetto, as the Italians 'remembered' the musical and culinary charms of their villages under Mediterranean skies. The American nation, then, would be a confederation among past and present: a federal union of emigrant groups, memory-tied and sentiment-bound. And these groups would produce new national institutions by their very ways of remaining distinct.
While American political life took the forms of self-government, Irish political life took the forms of endless rebellion which never climaxed in revolution. While Americans were pre-occupied with social compacts, rights of representation, forms of legislation, and the balance and limits of power, the Irish had been pre-occupied with organized sabotage and the frustration of unjust laws. The American experience had been formal and legalistic; the Irish had been informal, extralegal, or even antilegal. But the Irish experience would not be wasted in America.
Within a decade or two the downtrodden Old World Irish had become the ebullient American Irish. They now organized not against but within the government.
New York become the first great city in history, observed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to be ruled by men of the people. Other cities - Rome under the Gracchi, London under John Wilkes, Paris under the Commune - were only temporarily run by representatives of the lower classes. But in New York from the early 19th century, rule by men of the people was organized into a regular and continuing system. This was doubly remarkable since that city was becoming the nation's single center of wealth and power. The popular rule of New York City was an Irish achievement. For the Irish developed and perfected the big-city political machines, which brought power to representatives of the lower classes not only in New York but in other cities. Still more remarkable, this unprecedented urban achievement was the work of a rural people.
Bewildered in a strange land, the Irish immigrant
welcomed the familiar brogue of an earlier comer. To establish himself
he needed a job, a house, food and shelter, and friends; and all these
needs helped bring the big-city political machine into being. By satisfying
them, the machines would thrive and would become a fixture in American
politics. Machine politics was a natural product of the emigrant frame
of mind. What is the main difference between a political machine and a
political party? A party is organized for a purpose larger than its own
survival. A political machine exists for its own sake; its primary, in
a sense its only, purpose is survival. A political party may succeed and
make itself obsolete by obtaining the purpose for which it was organized.
This is never true of a political machine, for a political machine succeeds
only by surviving. The Irish refugee was dominated above all by the need
to survive... And it was this machine politics that produced the political
boss and the professional politician whose business was politics. Their
test was the ability to keep their business profitable for themselves and
their clients... Although the Irish were quickly and spectacularly successful
in politics they did not prove masters of the arts of good government.
For the emigrant, in flight from poverty and oppression, American politics
had become an end in itself, a business to support and his fellow clansmen.
If the Irish were unified by no large political principles, this was no obstacle to their political success, and might even be an advantage. If a well to help the poor and the needy was no adequate program to govern a nation, it was more than enough to capture a city ward.
The decentralized American political system had incidentally helped the Irish and other immigrant groups rise to self-respect and prosperity and political power. Had there been only a single national legislature, and only a single centralized government, the immigrants' rise in politics might have been postponed until after they had been assimilated to American ways. And by that time they might have had little of their own to add. But the federal system, with its numerous governments and countless decentralized political opportunities, made easier the incorporation of the Irish and others before their assimilation. They were encouraged to retain their identity as the most effective way to their share of power.
The notion of 'renewing' cities and clearing slums was no American invention. Concern over the slum had grown with the rise of the industrial city. During the 18th century, the street commissioners of London and of Dublin had cut through their city's slums... American reform movements of the late 19th century made slums their special target. Slum became the name for places where poverty, crime, prostitution an disease festered.
"The battle with the slum began the day civilization
recognized in it her enemy. It was a losing fight until conscience joined
forces with fear and self-interest against it."
- Jacob A Riis, "The Battle with the Slum" (1902)
Since the beginning of the Civil War, the
slum had (according to Riis) three times "contronted us in New York with
its challenge... It is one thing or the pther: either we wipe out the slum
or it wipes us out."
What urban renewal did to the people it was supposed to help suggested that the remedy was worse than the disease - if indeed there was a disease. To study the human problem, the sociologist Herbert Gans went to live in the West End of Boston in an area that was declared a slum in 1953... Gans discovered that the deep-rooted Italian-American "slum" community had had a flourishing community life of its own. There the food, religion, education, family life and politics had a special character that made residents feel at home.
Suburbs, upstart towns in a new pattern,
brought a revival of active, small-town political life... Suburbs, with
their problems of creating new school systems, new recreational facilities,
and new units of government, relived the conditions which accounted for
many of the virtues American historians had found in the 'frontier' community.
If, as historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick suggested, the special
'frontier' origins of American democracy were to be traced not to the backwoods
environment, but to the recurrent urgent need to build new institutions
for community purposes, then the suburbs really provided a new American
'frontier'... Thousands of new suburbs with myriad local problems awakaned
the interests and political energies of mid-20th-century Americans.
Despite the rising divorce rate and other widely advertised forces which loosed the marriage bond, the suburbs, a bastion of the free-standing single-family residence, strengthened home and family. If, as was often observed, the cosmopolitan city enticed the family outside the family residence, the small town reincarnation reinforced the home as center... On the whole suburban life was pleasant. If it lacked the cosmopolitan stimulus of the big city or the secure isolation of the farm, it provided other, blander pleasures.
There were few voices, and almost no eloquent voices, raised in defense of suburbia. The suburban transformation of American middle-class life had taken place, Americans by the millions had moved to the suburb, yet no William Allen White or Sherwood Anderson or Thornton Wilder had arised to romanticize the new folkways.
The cityward migration of Negroes was also
a migration out of the South... Negroes living in the rural South generally
did not move to a Southern city on their way northward and westward...
The Negro's immigration to the city was one more American saga - as full
of adventure, of hope and disappointment as any of the other migrations
that had built the nation... Other immigrant groups - the Irish, the Italians,
the Jews - had generally begun their American experience in their own gathered
community in a city. In the South, however, the Negro had been primarily
a rural person; he had generally lived in small groups dispersed among
the white population, to serve the convenience of his white master or employer...
A number of forces were bringing Negroes into Northern and Western cities...
At the outbreak of World War 1, when the flow of unskilled immigrant labor
from Europe was cut off, Henry Ford and others sent their agents South
and they even provided special freight cars to bring Negroes to work in
their Northern factories... Women found jobs as household servants. And
a small number of Negro business and professional men came North (as the
saying went) "to take advantage of the disadvantages".
When the Negro migrant arrived at his Promised Land outside the South, segregation ordinances, social pressures, and fear, and then inevitable choices, kept him confined to his own city within the city. Negro communities developed a life of their own with their own character, their own glamour, and their own frustrations.
Shifting away from the nonviolent teachings of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, a newly organized, newly proud and self-conscious Negro community experimented with every sort of technique - violent, nonviolent and "nonviolent" - in an effort to secure their rightful place in American life. But some of these efforts themselves threatened to postpone the day when the Negro would be undistinguished from all other Americans and so frustrated their proper purpose. Efforts to "compensate" for historical injustices by quotas, by reverse discrimination and other devices were creating a new suspiciousness and resentment in the non-Negro community; this in turn threatened to accentuate and perpetuate the Negro's indelible status, and to create problems which neither good will nor violence gave promise of solving... Could a nation which had created boundless new consumption communities and statistical communities, and which coudl erase space and the seasons - could that nation once again fulfill the American talent for erasing barriers?
[#5 Levelling Times and Places]
In America the crude intractable facts of life, without which miracles never would have been necessary, were being dissolved. The regularities of nature, by which men knew that they were alive and were only human - the boundaries of seasons, of indoors and outdoors, of space and time, and the uniqueness of every passing moment - all these were being confused... Foods were being preserved out of season, water poured from bottomless indoor containers, men flew up into space and landed out of the sky, past events were conjured up again, the living images and resounding voices of the dead were made audible, and the present moment was packaged for future use. When man could accomplish miracles he began to lose his sense of the miraculous. This meant, too, a decline of common sense, and the irrelevance of the rule of thumb that had governed man since the beginning of history. Americans who could no longer expect the usual were in danger of depriving themselves of the charms of the unexpected. "Everyday miracles" added immeasurably to life, but they also subtracted something that could never be measured. Democratizing everything enlarged the daily experience of millions, but spreading also meant thinning. Attentuation summed up the new quality of experience.
The first charm and virgin promise of America were that it was so different a place. But the fulfillment of modern America would be its power to level times and places, to erase differences between here and there, now and then. And finally the uniqueness of America would prove to be its ability to erase uniqueness... The flavor of life had once come from winter's cold, summer's heat, the specia taste and color of each season's diet. Democracy of Times and Places meant making one place and one thing more like another, by bringing them under the control of man. The flavor of fresh meat would be tasted anywhere anytime, summer would have its ice, and winter would have its warmth...Civilization had survived man's limitations. Could it also survive his near-omnipotence? Men had been drawn together by their common weakness. Could they also find community in their new-found powers?
Before the Civil War the fresh meat that the city dweller ate had to come into his city on the hoof. Since there was no way of preventing spoilage of meat while it was brought in from outside, each city had its own slaughterhouses, which produced piles of offal and an offensive odor. For long-distance shipment, meat had to be preserved by salting and smoking and then be packed in barrels. When fresh meat was costly and only available at certain seasons, the social class and income of an urban America could be guaged by the quantity and quality of fresh meat found on his table. There is no better illustration of the American paradox - of how the very extent of the nation encouraged the finding of new ways to make life more uniform - than the story of meat. There come into being a national, even an international, market for the fresh meat raised on the Western plains.
By the 1930s the average length of railroad hauls for fruits and vegetables in the United States was about 1500 miles. The diet of Americans had been transformed. Fresh fruit and vegetables were no longer the food mainly of the rich, but become commonplace on American tables year-round.
Another essential step toward homogenizing the regions and seasons, toward democratizing the national diet and increasing the variety of foods of the ordinary citizen was the coming of refrigeration to every household.
The success of the Pullman railroad car was another sign that by the late 19th century, American mass production was becoming the effort to produce mass luxury.
In an age when European nations had not yet overcome the distinctions of the hereditary, money-inheriting aristocracy, the United States was providing its new comforts for a Democracy (and perhaps too, an Aristocracy) of Cash.
By the mid-20th century, millions of Americans were living and working high in the air. They spent whole days and nights in towers of steel and glass, and the skyscraper became a symbol of the American city. Just as 19th century boosters had boasted of their hotels, their Palaces of the Public, so 20th century boosters boasted of their towers. Both were as much a product of hope and aspiration as of necessity. The towering skyscraper expressed a new, latter-day American boosterism, a determination to compete with Nature herself, to won over the limitations of matter and space and seasons. The grandest went up in the largest, most congested cities... But in smaller cities too, all over the nation skyscrapers shot up. For the American skyscraper was not simply a reflex response to economic need or an answer to the scarcity of land. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, and in other cities of the West, mini-skyscrapers rose in the midst of endless acres of uninhabited prairie. As Old World cities grew they had spread out. The most populous cities were inevitably the most extensive. Rome was spread over seven hills, and before the middle of the 20th century, Greater London covered nearly 700 square miles. In European cities the tallest buildings, except for monuments, exposition towers, and occasional tours de force like the Eiffel Tower, reached up only five or six stories. The tall structures that Americans built were not mere Eiffel Towers. They were buildings to work in and live in.
[#6 Mass Producing The Moment]
Among the newer forms of leveling in America, none was more remarkable than the changed meaning of the moment. The "fleeting moment" was the poet's cliche because nothing was more obvious than that the instant now was never to bre recaptured... The unrepeatability of the moment was the very meaning of life - and death. It was another name for man's mortality. For only God was omnipresent. He would be everywhere and anywhere at once. He was not confined by space or by times... Only God could see all events as if they still happened, or happened all at one time. Only God could see the moving forms and hear the voices of the dead. Now man could do all these things. In earlier times man had discovered himself by what he could no do... History had been man's effort to accomodate himself to what he could not do. Amereican history in the 20th century would, more than ever before, test man's ability to accomodate himself to all the new things he could do.
The work ethic was based on the notion that
each working moment was unqiue and irrecoverable. There were morning hours
and evening hours, and there was something different about the labor each
man... And somehow it seemed that this was not only right and proper, but
inevitable. Man was the only measure of man. Life was a series of unrelivable,
unrepeatable episodes. Time was a procession of unique moments - each was
now gone and never again. The past was that had gone beyond recall. In
20th century American even this old truism would cease to be true. For
time units become "fungible", a series of closely measured, interchangeable
units. Time was no longer a stream and had become a production line.
Clocks and watches were scarce in the United States until the mid-19th century. If every unit of time was vague and imprecise, then, of course, a unit of work could not be measured by the time it required. The contours of the work unit were necessarily uncertain so long as work hours were bounded by daylight and darkness... Well into the 19th century a watch was an heirloom, to be worm pompously at the end of a heavy gold chain... The expression "wristwatch" did not enter English until nearly 1900. Widespread use of the wristwatch, and the universal awareness of horological time, did not come until after such watches had been worn by servicemen in the Boer War (1899-1902) to synchronize the movements of their army units. Only when Americans could afford to buy watches and clocks and had found ways to make them in unprecedented numbers did they begin to wear wristwatches and to measure their lives in minutes.
By the mid-20th century, General Motors, in its contracts with its workers, had divided the hour into six-minute periods, had fragmented the work to fit the periods, and the worker was being paid by the number of tenths of an hour that he worked.
Making Experience Repeatable: Before the mid-20th century, Americans had perfected many new techniques for repeating sights and sounds at their own convenience. Uniqueness had once been the hallmark of experience. Each moment of life was supposed to be unrepeatable... Images of the past required the artistry of painter or sculptor; bygone actions could be recaptured only by the mimicry of the actor. The most vivid accounts of the dead were the work of men of letters. Now without anyone having so intended it, a host of inventions and innovations, large and small, were beginning to add up to a whole new gasp on past experience. The terminus of human life was, of course, still there, but the content of years of life was transformed. And the range of sights and sounds that any man could enjoy in a single lifetime was vastly widened.
Photography took the first giant step toward
democratizing the repeatable experience.
Did the very perfection for techniques for widening experience, and especially those for creatin and diffusing the repeatable experience - did all this, somehow, impoverish experience in the very process of democratizing it? ...Was there an inherent contradiction between the aim of democracy - to enrich the citizen's everyday life - and its modern means? Did the very instruments of life's enrichment, once available to all, somehow make life blander and less poignant? Could it possibly be true that while democratizing (the process) enriched, democracy (the product) diluted? These were some novel, tantalizing questions which would haunt American democracy in the 20th century. All this suggested still another question, a clue perhaps to the hidden rationale of the American booster spirit. Was the brighter, richer, more open life that America promised a product then, not of a high standard of living, but only of an always rising standard of living? Did the human richness of American democracy come not from the attainment of wealth, but from the reaching for it? ...Perhaps the best things in democracy came not from having but from seeking, not from being well off, but from becoming better off. Would a high standard of living, no matter how high, always open vistas that would become flat and stale?
Emile Zola's observation that "you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have got a photograph of it," now applied a hundredfold in the world of television. By the late 20th century the man on the spot, the viewer of the experience where it actually happened, began to feel confined and limited. The full flavor of the experience seemed to come only to the "viewer", the man in the television audience... Television cameras made him a ubiquitous viewer. The man there in person was spacebound, crowd-confined, while the TV viewer was free to see from all points of view, above the heads of other, and behind the scenes. Was it he who was really there? Making copies of experience, sights and sounds, for later use was one thing. Conquering space and time for instantaneous viewing was quite another, and even more revolutionary.
On the surface, television seemed simply
to combine the techniques of the motion picture with the phonograph with
those of the radio, but it added up to something more. Here was a new way
of mass-producing the moment for instant consumption by a "broadcast" community
of witnesses. Just as the printing press five centuries before had begun
to democratize learning, now the television set would democratize experience,
incidentally changing the very nature of what was newly shared.
Before, the desire to share experience had brought people out of their homes gathering them together (physically as well as spiritually), but television would somehow separate tham in the very act of sharing... Just as Rebecca no longer needed to go to the village well to gather her water (and her gossip), so now, too, in her 8th floor kitchenette she received the current of hot and cold running images. Before 1970, more than 95% of American households had television sets. Now the normal way to enjoy a community experience was at home in your living room at your TV set. In earlier times, to see a performace was to become part of a visible audience. At a concert, in a church, at a ball game or a political rally, the audience was half the fun... While she watched her TV set, the lonely Rebecca was thrust back in upon herself... The once warmly enveloping community of those physically present was displaced by a world of unseen fellow TV watchers. Who else was there? Who else was watching? And even if they had their sets turned on, were they really watching?
There was a new penumbra between watching and not-watching. "Attending" a ball game, a symphony concert, a theatrical performance or a motion picture became so casual that children did it while they wrote out their homework, adults while they played cards or read a magazine, or worked in the kitchen or in the basement.
Newly isolated from his government, from
those who collected his taxes, who provided public services, and who made
the crucial decisions of peace and war, the citizen felt a frustrating
new disproportion between how often and how vividly political leaders could
get their messages to him and how often and how vividly he could get his
message to them. Except indirectly, through opinion polls, Americans were
offered no new avenue comparable to television by which they could get
their message back.
By enabling him to be anywhere instantly, by filling his present moment with experiences engrossing and overwhelming, television diulled the American's sense of the past, and even somehow separated him from the longer past. If Americans had not been able to accompany the astronauts to the moon they would had have to read about it the next morning in some printed account that was engrossing in retrospect. But on television, Americans witnessed historic events as vivid items of the present. In these ways, then, television created a time myopia, focusing interest on the exciting, disturbing, inspiring, or catastrophic instantaneous *now*.
Shakespeare's metaphors became grim reality
when the whole world had become a TV stage.
The typewriter was destined to become and important force in American life. By providing a socially acceptable employment for women in the commercial world, it opened new office careers, and (with the telephone) helped bring women out of the kitchen in the world of affairs. But machine writing had other, subtler effects on everyday experience. As the typewritten letter became the norm for business correspondence, handwriting declined and that meant the decline of a visibly distinctive character in what anyone wrote. Throughout the 19th century, a clear and elegant handwriting style remained a useful skill for the ambitious young man. Colleges of penmanship, in their day, were as important as commercial colleges would become, with their teaching of shorthand and typing.
Was it any wonder, than, that modern Americans were eagerly, sometimes desperately, looking for unique, spntaneous, and exciting episodes with which to spice their lives of increasingly packaged experience? The "sensationalism" of the 20th century, while more flamboyant than that of any earlier era in American history, was not the product merely of the greed of newspaper publishers or the morbidity of public taste. Like other institutionalized vices it was a response to a human need - in this case a generalized need for sensation. This need was satisfied in several ways. The rise of popular journalism brought a new flood of interest in crime and in sports. These two staples of the democratized newspaper might look incongruous to the moralist, who would see in one the dramatic violations of the community's laws, in the other dramatic exhibitions of obedience to rules for their own sake.
[#7 The Thinner Life of Things]
"Property is desirable, is a positive good
in the world. Let not him who is homeless pull down the house of another,
but let him work dilligently and build one for himself, thus by example
assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built."
- Abraham Lincoln
"A corporation is just like any natural person,
except that it had no pants to kick or soul to damn, and by God, it ought
to have both!"
- A Western Judge
In America, the corporation would have a fertile new life. Since corporations, the creatures of government, could be made immortal and could be given whatever powers the lawmakers wished for them, popular leaders had long feared the corporation. Sir Edward Coke, 17th century champion of common-law rights against a tyrant-king, warned that corporations "cannot commit treason, nor be outlawed nor excommunicated, for they have no souls". While Americans never succeededn in giving corporations a soul, they did see the corporation magically transformed in other ways. Corporations here would multiply as never before, they would spread over the land, and finally permeate every citizen's daily life. While the American corporation, a new species of an old genus, was not without its menacing features, it became (what Coke could never have imagined) the democratizer of property. The states themselves had their roots in corporations: the Virginia Company of London, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and other colonies had been established as trading corporations under authority of a royal charter. Throughout history, corporations had been units of self-government, with the power to make byelaws, and to do many of the things which a more remote central government had neither the means nor the knowledge nor the will to do. Our colonial history was a catalogue of what corporations were learning to do in America. In a sense, then, American federalism was a by-product of the corporation - of the novelty and variety of its creations. What had been feeble 17th century corporations would become a community of varied sovereign states. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these in turn would make possible tens of thousands of new-style corporations, diffusing their ownership among tens of millions of citizens.
When Henry Ford's assembly line began turning out automobiles by the thousands, it was not hard to awaken the American's desire to own a car. But democratizing the automobile was not merely a question of engineering or of automotive and production design... To put the automobile in the hands of the American people required other social inventions no less novel than the assembly line... New institutions for selling and buying and financing developed more rapidly than the techniques of automobile production. These would give a new ambiguity to ownership.
While the automovbile provided the opportunity for the biggest pool of installment credit in the nation, installment buying became a more common way of acquiring the increasing number and variety of durable consumer goods. It was hardly an exaggeration to say that the American Standard of Living was bought on the installment plan... When installment credit become universal, the old thrift ethic had less meaning than ever. For the American Standard of Living had come to mean a habit of enjoying things before they were paid for. An that habit was becoming an industrial necessity.
The credit card in another way democratized the world of business. Now the owner of even a single filling station or of a small restaurant could benefit from the advertising done by a vast national organization, and in addition have the advantages of its nationwide credit network. Credit card become so universal a form of currency that thieves preferred credit cards to dollar bills. And the extreme in attenuating the personality of the consumer came when it was possible to steal and use another person's credit without his knowledge. Credit, once closely tied to the character, honor and reputation of a particular person, one of a man's most precious possessions, was becoming a flimsy, plasticized, universal gadget.
The franchise offered an opportunity to own, and yet not to own, to risk and yet to be cautious. It democratized business enterprise by offering a man with small capital and no experience access to the benefits of a large capital, large-scale experiment, national advertising and established reputations. It also democratized and leveled consumptions by offering the same foods and drinks and services in all sorts of neighborhoods, across the country... It lessened the differences between times and places, between ways of selling and buying anything and anything else.
In a world of franchisees, the American consumer's buying opportunities and buying experience were transformed. Neighbourhood shops, "Mom and Pop" enterprises (in the jargon of the trade), were displaced by outlets of national franchises. The distinctive local hangout was displaced by an Orange Julius or McDonald's Hamburgers; where the corner garage had stood, there was now a Western Auto Aupply... Instead of haphazrd personal enterprise, the American consumer found standardized, market-tested, nationally advertised brands of all products and services... His neighborhood world was flattened into the national consuming landscape. He patronized the highway outlet of a Dunkin' Donut or KFC because he could be sure of what he would get. Wherever he traveled across the continent, he felt a new assurance that he would be at home, and somehow in the same place... Nationwide franchises made consuming, anywhere in the USA, into a new kind of repeatable experience... Everything sold for a purpose served its purpose well, and sometimes in a surprising new way. But when the surprise itself become standardized that, too, lost much of its charm. Consuming, like the common discourse of package words (cliches), became a perfunctory, flavorless act and lost its nuances.
[#8 Language, Knowledge and the Arts]
"When we Americans are done with the English
language it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy."
- Finley Peter Dunne
Never before had democracy been tried on such a large scale, nor allowed to shape the academic standards of a whole nation's language, to redefine its higher learning and reconstruct its notions of art. Out of this remarkable opportunity came pervasive new ambiguities and uncertainties about the standards by which all culture was to be measured. Was your language "right" or "wrong"? Were you speaking eloquently or crudely? Were you acquiring knowledge or falsehood, were you being educated, propagandized, entertained or actaully deceived? ...What knowledge was "useful" and what was "useless"? Did art have to be "beautiful"? And if not, what was art anyway? Underlying the democratic transformation of the ways of judging and measuring was a faith in "the people," in their inherent spontaneous wisdom, when unguided by authority or by tradition. Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) became the ruling maxim of more and more of American life.
By the mid-20th century, new democratic criteria had come into the classroom, changing the notion of what standards, if any, society could apply to its language. These were the product of a new science of linguistics.
As the schoolroom was expected to perform a remedial function, the temptations were increased for insecure, upward-mobile teachers to impose "Rules of Good English" on their insecure, upward-mobile students. But there was also the Democratic Temptation - to flatter the people by assuring them that whatever they were already doing was right and best. Teachers sought to relieve their new students of feelings of inferiority by suggesting that perhaps the language they heard at home was not actually "incorrect" at all. This temptation became increasingly potent as the century wore on. Before the century was out, some who still called themselves "teachers" of language thought that they would bolster the egos and reduce the aggressions of their underprivileged Negro students by validating "Black Language" and so relieving them of the need to learn Standard English... These streams became a flood which overwhelmed the schoolmarms.
By 1900 the United States had nearly 1.5 million telephones, by 1932 there were 17.5 million. Until the coming of the telephone, the main means of communication between people at a distance had been the written or printed word. But in the new era of oral communication, it had become possible for almost anybody to talk to almost anybody else about almost anything, or nothing. Communication became more informal. The telephone became the means for conducting business. Social invitations, formerly byb letter, now came by telephone. The love letter was displaced by the long-distance sweet-talk.
In American politics a new conversational style appeared, taking its cue not from Demosthenes and Ciceo or Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster, but from the more successful radio announcers. For the first time it was possible in that style to reach the millions... By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated, in March 1933, the nation was emotionally as well as technologically ready for a friendly radio voice... FDR turned radio into a vehicle for politics... Before FDR, it was customary for public figures to deliver their "addresses" from a formal standing posture, but not the President sat relaxed in his parlor and spoke to citizens individually in their parlors. It did not seem so strange then for him to address the 150 million citizens as "my friends". The President was no longer Delivering a Public Address; he was joining other Americans for a "Fireside Chat".
It was significant that both Hitler and Mussolini (even in the Age of Radio) built ther movements with huge face-to-face rallies where the hysteria of the whole crowd and storm-troop discipline could neforce the dictated enthusiasm. In the totalitarian countries the individual citizen's radio receiver, because it was so private a mediun, was regarded with suspicion as a potential vehicle of treason... In the US, on the other hand, the privacy of radio reception was an aid to petty would-be dictators, merchants of hate and demagogues who secured living-room audiences of Americans who might have hesitated to attend one of their public rallies.
If there was to be a new American religion of education, the universities were its cathedrals, just as the high schools later would become its parish churches. It was no accident that American universities adopted the architecture of the great age of European cathedral building... In the United States, unlike the more settled countries of western Europe, education became a curiously inverted pyramind... Higher learning spread over the land, in ambitious and pretentious institutions generally supported by public treasure, even before the courts of the land had removed doubts about whether it was legally permissible to collect taxes to support a public high school.
In the late 20th century, the American "system" of education, insofar as there was any system, would still be upside down. American colleges and universities had reached standards of excellence in nearly all fields of learning which exceeded those in other advanced nations; and on the whole they had more resources than they knew what to do with. At the same time, elementary schools and high schools, which supplied the lifeblood of the colleges and universities, were weak in resources, and had begun to be corrupted (as the universities had been a half-century earlier) by the very institutions of local control which had once been their strength.
The struggle for the high school and the debate over its proper role in American democracy would focus once again a question that had recurred throughout American history and that would bedevil the nation in the 20th century. It was in some ways the central problem of modern democracy, for it was nothing less than the meaning of human "equality". Was the good society one which allowed all citizens to develop their natural differences, including their natural inequalities? Or was it a society which tried to make men equal? Did "equality" mean the maximum fulfillment of each, or did it mean the levelling of all? This question was nowhere more sharply posed than in education, and especially in the high school... If high school was to be the road to a "higher" learning, then perhaps all citizens might not be equally qualified to go up the road. Should the high school, then, be a sieve, to select out those who could from those who could not profitably go on to a college or university?
Along with language and the higher learning, art too took on a remarkably popular character. And what had been a domain of patrons, of men of wealth and family, becmae Something for Everybody. At the same time that art became more accessible than ever to the common citizens, and aimed more and more to appeal to him, he became less certain than ever whether what he really saw really was art, and if that wasn't art, what really was. Art, and especially painting, once the realm of definite rules and categories, the abode of unquestioned beauty, where the real thing was certified and authenticated by Academies and by the generations, in modern America became a world of novelties and puzzles.
Beginning in the 18th century, "artist" came to mean primarily one who practiced the arts of design, "one who seeks to express the beautiful in visible form", and soon the word designated more specifically a person who cultivated the art of painting as a profession. When the American Republic was founded, and for nearly a century thereafter, an "artist" was commonly someone pursuing and embodying the community's traditional notions of beauty... During most of the 19th century, painting in America, with a few exceptions, played the role which had been created for it in the Old World. Here, too, portrait painting and history painting were the most respectable... On the whole, the fine arts in the United States had been the least American of the expressions of this transatlantic civilization. Wealthy American collectors and the patrons of American painting knew the European academies and museums; their notions of art, and of beauty in the fine arts, were shaped by the Old Masters.
[#10 Mission and Momentum]
"All life is an experiment. Every year if
not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is
a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to
- William Jennings Bryan
The nation's view of its future and of its relations to the world never lost the mark of its earliest past. The Puritans were sent on their "Errand in the Wilderness" not by a British sovereign or by London businessmen, but by God himseld. Whatever names later Americans used to describe the direction of their history - whether the spoke of "Providence" or "Destiny" - they still kept alive the sense of mission. "We shall nobly save or meanly lose," Lincoln warned, "the last best hope of earth." A mission, whether assigned by Providence or Destiny or the Promised Land itself, was an errand which the individual American remained free to refuse. But democracy in 20th century America had succeedeed in making every man part of the social matrix. No longer a mere responder to calls from without, every man had been brought into the womb of society... The sense of mission, then, the voluntary sense, was being overwhelmed by an involuntary sense: a sense of momentum. In physics, momentum meant the product of a body's mass and its linear velocity. Translated into social terms, this was the sense not of moving but of being moved, not of pushing but of being pushed. Momentum kept things going the way they were already going... Noe the American assignment seemed to come no longer from the conscious choices of individual citizens, but from the scale and velocity of the national projects themselves. Man's problem of self-determination was more baffling than ever. For the very power of the most democratized nation on earth had led its citizens to feel inconsequential before the forces they had unleashed.
The enlistment of the missionary spirit in the service of American patriotism was dramatized in 1899 at a memorial service in Boston when Mrs. Julia Ward Hoew, who had been an abolitionist and was now a leader in the woman suffrage movement, rode in the same carriage with the former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, who had volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War. They both sang Mrs. Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the "crusade" against Spanish tyranny. A half-century later, General Eisenhower entitled his account of World War II "Crusade in Europe". From the beginning, Americans had been unwilling to believe that their emigration, their diplomacy, and their wars had no high purpose - and they commonly defined that purpose as a "mission".
Education, which was becoming a secular religion within the United States, became an agency of missions abroad. American missionaries carried this gospel of education to the farthest corners of the world. They established schools of every kind with American money, which they collected in millions of dollars and in millions of pennies.
The menace to American civilization, according to Samuel Billings Capen, was materialism. "Commerce is going everywhere, and commerce without Christ is a curse. It meant firearms and the slave trade and rum."
For most of the nation's history, the United States remained uncomfortable, inept and on the whole unsuccessful in diplomacy. The problems of the American statesman in foreign policy were especially complicated by the varagies of American domestic politics. The United States was itself a United Nations, with a kind of veto power in the hands of its numeous ethnic and national groups. The sympathies of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and others, tended to involve the United States willy-nilly in the problems of the world. But while American demography - a nation of immigrants - had drawn the nation into the world, American had kept the world at a distance. Two oceans and the accident of weak or friendly neighbors had preserved the nation from the peril of foreign invaders.
From the earliest times the political relations
among nations had been dominated by certain familiar customs and practices:
wars, alliances, confederations, treaties, and secret understandings. And
their economic relations had comprised imports and exports, controlled
and influenced by tariffs, bounties, credits and loans. Then, occasionally,
when a stronger nation could impose its will on a weaker, it might demand
blackmail or tribute, in payments, goods, or privileges exacted from the
weak to the strong. Occasionally, of course, there were acts of international
charity: money, food, medical assistance or clothing sent from one people
to another to relieve famine, to cure plagues, to mitigate suffering from
fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption or other disasters... But gifts of
charity were only occasional and small... The rise of world empires from
the 15th to the 20th century had confused these relationships and mixed
up the categories. Colonialism was a way of giving to these relations among
peoples at a distance some of the features of the relations within nations.
Laws took the place of treaties, "international" trade become trade within
an empire. The money that the British government spent in India in the
19th century was not precisely an import or an export, not exactly an act
of charity or simply a fact of economics. The political fortunes and the
welfare of imperial and colonial peoples were involved with strong forces
of industrial progress, exploitation, development and benefaction.
By the early 20th century, sizable privately donated American gifts the peoples in distress encircled the globe... The people of the United States had taken on the role of Samaritans to the world. Still, the effort rigorously to separate charity from government policy lasted well into the 20th century. The aid that Americans sent to Belgium after the Germans had occupied that country in 1914, and which Herbert Hoover administered under the Commission for Belgian Relief was a collection of private gifts. In response to a suspicious German official who asked Hoover, "What do you Americans get out of this?", Hoover retorted, "It is absolutely impossible for you Germans to understand that one does anything from pure humanitarian, disinterested motives, so I shall not attempt to explain it to you."
The American institution of foreign aid was a by-produc of World War II. It marked a new stage in American foreign policy, in which charitable, fiscal, political, ideological, and military motives would be more confused than ever before... By the early spring of 1947, President Truman, who had never shared President Roosevelt's optimism about long-term cooperation with Soviet Russia, was persuaded that he could wait no longer to show American determination to prevent the Soviets from dominating the world. One sign after another, culminating in Soviet demands that Turkey cede territory for new Russian naval bases in the Bosporus and in efforts to create a communist regime in Turkey, unmasked Stalin's determination to use the Allied victory to surround and subvert nations that were not yet communist. The next American policy was sketched by George Kennan, counselor of the United States embassy in Moscow, who knew Russia and the Russians as did few American diplomats before him. The survival of the United States and the free world, he urged, would depend on "a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."
On March 12, 1947, President Truman, before a joint session of Congress, made his momentous statement of American intentions toward the world. The Truman doctrine, as a depature in American foreign policy, would rank with President Monroe's statement more than a century earlier and with President Wilson's utterances before World War I, and in some ways it combined their purposes. The Monroe Doctrine - that the US would not tolerate outside interference in the internal affairs of the nations of the New World - was now to be made world-wide; American power and American wealth were offered to keep the world safe for democracy.
The new world of the divisible atom brought new dimensions of catastrophe as well as of knowledge. The destructive power of the atomic bomb, made in the USA and first used by Americans, gave Americans a new sense of the community of man. But many Americans were haunted by fear that in the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima that had conjured a fifth rider of the Apocalypse. Along with Pestilence and War and Famine and Death, was there now a horse reserved for Science? Bewilderment at the magnitude of the new power began to be overshadowed by a sense of common world-wide doom. If Americans could make an atomic bomb, why could it not be made by others? ...Nothing before, not even the great immigrations or two "world" wars, had made Americans feel so immersed in the world. This apocalytpic terror of the late 1940s also brought scientists who had made the bomb into the political arena. With their Federation of Atomic Scientists they aimed to save mankind from the consequences of their success. In the US they secured civilian control of atomic energy... Oddly enough, the new instruments and evidences of American omnipotence brought a new sense of powerlessness about the future. Fate and Providence and Destiny were being displaced or at least overshadowed by a growing sense of Momentum: a deepening belief in the inevitability of continued movement in whatever direction the movement was already going... By contrast with God's Will or the Economy of Nature or Progress or Destiny, "Momentum" was neutral.. Perhaps never before in modern history had man been so horrified and bewildered by the threat of his own handiwork. His sense of where things were going was no less clear, perhaps it was even clearer than ever, but his sense of freedom to change the direction and of his power and his duty to judge the direction had dwindled.
Science and technology had a momentum of their own: each next step was commanded by its predecessor. To fail to take that next step was to waste all the earlier efforts. Once the nation had embarked on the brightly illuminated path of science, it had somehow ventured into a world of mystery where the direction and the speed would be dictated by the instruments that cut the path and by the vehicles that carried man ahead. The autonomy of science, the freedom of the scientist to go where knowledge and discovery led him, spelled the unfreedom of the society to choose its way for other reasons. People felt they might conceivably slow the pace of change - they might delay the supersonic transport for a year or two - but they wondered whether they were in a position to stop it.
The sense of momentum which overwhelmed Presidents burdened the ordinary citizen. The pace of Research and Development, of advertising, of ingenious, pervasive and inescapable new ways for making and marketing nearly everything to nearly everybody, made it seem that the future of American civilization and the shape of everyday life could not fail to be determined by the mass and velocity of the enterprises already in being. This pervaded the public feeling... Fewer decisions of social policy seemed to be Whether-or-Not as more become decisions of How-Fast-and-When.
Contemporary history is the easiest - but also the most treacherous - kind of history. Everything we say or think about ourselved (including, of course, any misconceptions) is an authentic part of our history. While each of us, better than any future historian, ought to know how confusing is the experience of our time, each of us is specifically tempted to solace himself with simplifications. In this way we learn to sympathize with the over-simplifying historians of other ages, but we do not necessarily help the uninitiated to grasp the fullness and peculiarity of being alive in our time. One such peculiarity in the late 20th century is a strangely unhistorical, or even anti-historical bias. While the historical profession proliferates, the historical profession declines. The brevity of our past, the belief in a New World, the speedy transformations of American life, all have made latter-day Americans readier with complaints and critiques of any and every custom and institution than with epics of American achievement.
There has been too little treatment of international relations as simply that aspect of civilization in which a people are concerned with their relations to "others"... International relations could be viewed as the counterpart in space for what history is in time: history shows that things can be otherwise in a society because they have been otherwise; international relations shows that they can be otherwise because they are otherwise in other societies.
~ Quotes from Part
One - The Colonial Experience
~ Quotes from Part Two - The National Experience
~ Quotes about American
~ James McPherson - Battle Cry of Freedom
~ David Hackett Fischer - Albion's Seed
~ Alan Taylor - American Colonies
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