I’ve been reading a number of books recently, mostly about early America and related subjects, including such topics as Quaker pacifism, Southern honor, and concepts of family. Here are some of my thoughts and observations.
First, I was only slightly shocked to learn that a mere 8% of Americans were considered legal persons when the Constitution was ratified. This means that 92% of the population had very limited rights of any sort, from voting to having one’s own bank account. Women, for example, were basically seen as property, owned by fathers and later husbands with only widowhood giving them some power and freedom.
The founding fathers wanted a society determined by class, race and gender. They wanted to create an independently wealthy class of “disinterested aristocrats” (i.e., rich white males). Talking to many conservatives, I realize that this vision of a ruling elite still has strong support.
There were two problems with this vision.
First, few of the founding fathers were independently wealthy and so a disinterested aristocracy wasn’t possible. Only someone like Franklin was wealthy enough to work as a politician for free. The rest had to work jobs on the side such as lawyers or plantation owners.
Second, the 92% of the population didn’t want to be ruled by a benevolent ruling class. Also, with Jefferson’s dismantling much of Hamilton’s centralized government, grassroots populist democracy flourished. The American people didn’t need anyone else to solve their problems, especially not about their own local self-governance. In the first half of the 19th century, government as a formal institution was almost invisible.
The founding fathers had been disappointed by their failed lofty ideals of a gentile brotherhood. Their vision was one of honor as defined by Englightenment thinking. It was about noble self-sacrifice by well-educated wise leaders (a modernized version of Plato’s philosopher kings). All of this was grounded in ancient ideas of a republic. Some of the founding fathers were more radical, but most of them didn’t want democracy as we now appreciate, heck most of them probably didn’t even understand such a concept. Rule by “The People” for them meant rule by the 8%.
Jefferson, somewhat unintentionally, made way for an entirely different vision of America. What America became in the 19th century was a country of shopkeepers and religious reformers. There was no nobility, no valor, no honor in being a shopkeeper. Anyone could be a shopkeeper. Even a lowly housewife or black person could produce something to be sold. And religious reform was an emasculating force often led by women.
Along with this, a middle class began to arise, although in some ways it was more of a perception than a reality in the 19th century. After the American Revolution had ended, there actually was more economic inequality than before. But the difference was that Americans now saw themselves as free, even if many of their freedoms had been curtailed by an overreaching and sometimes violently oppressive plutocracy (the Whiskey Rebellion comes to mind).
This also relates to Jefferson. He wanted a society based on agricultural landowners who worked their own land. This was the beginning of the American Dream of everyone owning their own home. The government artificially created a middle class by giving public land away for free or else very cheaply and by providing such things as public education. This made the American population more self-reliant and so less needing of paternalistic rulers.
Another unforseen result was the religious revivalism and the politicized religioisity that it fomented. This frightened many of the founding fathers who saw religion in more elite and intellectual terms. Adam Smith despised Evangelicalism and began to longingly speak of British aristocracy. Jefferson ended up being profoundly wrong in his prediction that Unitarianism would become the dominant religion within a few generations of America’s foundation.
What the Evangelicals and other religious reformers offered was something new. They didn’t want paternalistic benevolence such as money being given to the poor. They wanted to solve the problem of poverty itself. They tried to discover the roots of poverty and they sought to reform society. This was what would later result in the movements of Populism and Progressivism. Grassroots democracy was becoming a force to be reckoned with, especially with the new breed of populist politician (e.g., Andrew Jackson). This was only exacerbated by the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century, many of whom were escaping oppressive ruling classes and some of whom were radical revolutionaries.
The earlier ideals of honor and manhood were becoming lost. The Revolutionary generation was growing old and the public recollection of the Revolutionary era were becoming hazy. The founding fathers often felt forgotten and disrespected.
America was founded on the eve of early industrialization. Even farming was being transformed through new technology. In this marketplace society, there was no place for elitist Enlightenment thinking. Most Americans knew nothing about Enlightenment thinking and had no desire to know. Americans were becoming a people of producers and consumers.
Grand conflicts were no longer so apparent to the average American. People didn’t feel directly threatened by the French, British or even Indians. The frontier had moved so much further Westward, far away from the bustling cities of commerce.
The problem was: How were Americans to maintain a larger sense of meaning and purpose as a nation? How were boys to be made into men and how were men to prove their manhood? This problem seemed clear to the founding generation who reminisced about the ennobling effect of war. Many saw the War of 1812 as an opportunity to develop character in the American people. This feeling became strong in places like Kentucky where masculine identity had been built on romanticized notions of the early Indian fighters. However, the War of 1812 was a failure and besides it never captured the imagination of most Americans.
This sense of a problem remained. And it led to divisions in how America should be defined.
Andrew Jackson was a Scots-Irish Southerner who, along with being the first president not being born an aristocrat, embodied the Southern vision of militant honor. He combined that with an overtly racist and anti-intellectual sensibility that was particularly popular among Southern white farmers. The North was more industrialized and had a different vision of honor that was influenced by Puritan and Quaker values, but it was the South rather than the North that dominated politics at that time. It was only with the mass immigration to the North that allowed a change of political fortunes during the Civil War.
An odd thing happened, though. The Civil War was traumatizing for both sides. There was little honor in victory, but Americans began to romanticize the honor of Southern loss and so began to romanticize Southern notions of gentlemanly honor. This, of course, led to much conflict around class and race.
Going into the 20th century, Americans were still struggling with what honor and manhood meant. There was a mass exodus from farming communities. A new generation grew up in the cities, the largest generation of child labor and the first generation of modern consumers of all the products being built in the factories in which they worked. They were a generation without authority figures. They became known as the Lost Generation. They fought in WWI, a war worst than the Civil War. They travelled the world and became cosmopolitan in the way no group of Americans had been since the founding fathers.
This was the beginning of the Progressive era which was strongly promoted by religious reformers such as Evangelicals. This was when the National Parks were created and when the streams were stocked with European game fish, the idea being that such things as hunting and fishing could make men out of this urbanized generation of boys.
It’s interesting how these themes formed and how they continue to this day.