WHILE EUROPEAN CULTURE had developed elaborate ways of fragmenting, specializing, and monopolizing pieces of man’s knowledge and functions, American culture from its very beginning allowed many of these to come together. American life promoted a new fluidity in man’s thinking about his knowledge and about himself. It produced a novel, half-articulate educational ideal—the ideal of the undifferentiated man, fostered by facts deeply rooted in the provincial age.
The vagueness of American social classes. The ideals of medieval education, if they were nothing else, were at least precise. Long before the founding of the American colonies, the traditional “liberal” education had been defined as an induction into the seven (not six or eight) Liberal Arts. Such were the studies suitable for a free man—hence the “liberal” education. With equal precision, the “higher” university faculties included Theology, Law, and Medicine. Under American conditions, neither liberal nor professional education could retain its ancient precision. Where a man’s status was as ambiguous and as shifting as it was in the New World, he could not know in advance which types of learning would be especially appropriate for him. In European culture the distinctions of social status had been represented in distinctions of subject-matter: the “liberal” arts, suitable for a “free” man, were labors of the mind; the “servile” arts required the handling of physical objects. That distinction long separated science from technology, and its breakdown was essential to progress. Similarly, the distinction between “philosophers” on the one hand and practical inventors—known variously and condescendingly as “mechanics,” “projectors,” or economic “adventurers”—on the other was sharp and divisive. Distinctions which had been hallowed by custom, law, and language in Europe came to seem vague and artificial in America.
Although colonial society was doubtless a good deal more aristocratic than we have been in the habit of imagining, many circumstances prevented a clear definition of this aristocracy—except perhaps in South Carolina, Virginia, and upstate New York. In colleges with small and transient faculties, the coverage of traditional subjects was necessarily crude and haphazard. The multiplication of college degrees—which came to stand for the most diverse subject-matters at all different levels—further confused the ancient European standards, and made it less clear what the authentic standard really ought to be.
The diffusion of roles. The traditional list of “liberal” arts, already beginning to break down in Europe, would no longer liberate man in America. Here men found it hard to prepare for any role, even that of a “liberally” educated man, simply because their roles had not yet been sharply defined. Similarly, in the professions, no traditional preparation could actually prepare a man for the novel tasks of clergyman, doctor, lawyer, or professor in America. Where the learned professions were loosely organized, where nearly everybody was doing some of the work of the doctor, the lawyer, or the teacher, the criteria of professional eminence became vague. A successful New England clergyman was also likely to be something of a physician, a politician, and a teacher, and perhaps to have other jobs as well.
A remarkable instance of all this was the new and more diversified role of women in American life. By the 18th century the rise of the middle classes and the spread of literacy had already begun to improve the education of European women. Although our knowledge is only fragmentary, evidence suggests that women in colonial America were more versatile, more active, more prominent, and on the whole more successful in activities outside the kitchen than were their English counterparts. The system of household manufactures, under which the husband’s craft was practiced in or near the home, gave the wife or daughter an opportunity to learn. There was a surprisingly large number of women printers and newspaper publishers in the colonial period, and not all were widows carrying on the work of their husbands. Women were apothecaries and even general medical practitioners. Especially on a Southern plantation a man needed his wife’s coöperation to carry on his business. William Byrd’s secret diaries dramatically describe how important was the help of a competent and energetic wife. In New England, where seafaring husbands left their wives alone for months or years, women prospered as merchants and tradeswomen.
Everywhere the scarcity of labor tended to remove social prejudices. In early New England it was not unheard of, and apparently not frowned upon, for the daughter of a good family to go out to domestic service. Judge Samuel Sewall noted that his sister planned to become a maid to a Boston family. At the death of William Sheaffe, deputy collector of customs at Boston in 1771, his wife, who was the daughter of a prominent citizen, was set up by her friends in the grocery business.
Great distances, social and geographic mobility, and the scarcity of schools for the rising classes broadened women’s interests by imposing on them the responsibility for educating the family. Perhaps this made it less odd than it might seem today that Cotton Mather taught his daughter Katherine both Latin and Hebrew. George Wythe, one of the leading figures of Revolutionary Virginia under whom Jefferson had served his legal apprenticeship, was reputed to possess “a perfect knowledge of the Greek language, which was taught him by his mother in the back woods.” Jefferson’s own plan of reading for his daughter Patsy, he explained in 1783, needed to be “considerably different from what I think would be most proper for her sex in any other country than America. I am obliged in it to extend my views beyond herself, and consider her as possibly at the head of a little family of her own. The chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one, and of course that the education of her family will probably rest on her own ideas and direction without assistance. With the best poets and prosewriters I shall therefore combine a certain extent of reading in the graver sciences.”
Even such fragmentary evidence suggests that women in the colonies were successful in more different activities and were more prominent in professional and public life than they would be again until the 20th century. Colonial laws tended to assimilate the legal status of men and of women. The rights of married women and their powers to carry on business and to secure divorce were much enlarged; the law protected women in ways unprecedented in the English common law.
American men who, like American women, were generally less specialized than their European counterparts, had become versatile through the force of circumstances. They were not “universal men” but “jacks-of-all-trades.” Their tasks and opportunities made their interests broad and fluid. The “businessman,” not the virtuoso, was the prototype of American versatility, for the businessman took his clues from his opportunities. “All the people of New-England without an exception,” Timothy Dwight observed in the early 19th century, “beside what is created by disease, or misfortune, are men of business…. The business of a Clergyman it is here believed, is to effectuate the salvation of his flock, rather than to replenish his own mind with that superiour information, which, however ornamental or useful in other respects, is certainly connected with this end in a very imperfect degree…. Clergymen, here, are rarely possessed of libraries, sufficiently extensive to make such attainments practicable.” In the other learned professions, too, men were judged by how well they performed rather than by how much they knew of some subject matter. College faculties were viewed as instruments for education rather than as repositories of wisdom; they were primarily “teachers.” Whenever women took their cues from their new tasks and opportunities, their emphasis was also crudely instrumental; they had several jobs to do. The traditional standards of feminine gentility would not serve.
Out of all the limitations and opportunities of colonial America grew an American ideal, which sprang from the conviction that knowledge, like the New World itself, was still only half-discovered. English handbooks, like Brathwait’s English Gentleman, warned the would-be gentleman not to seem too proficient in any specialty (whether dancing, swordplay, reading, or writing) lest it seem that he had been forced by a lack of lordly acres to make his living as a mere craftsman. If in the earliest years some Virginia would-be gentlemen were deterred by this fear of appearing too proficient, it was not for long; gentlemanly ineptness went against the American grain. Here all proficiencies, except perhaps those of the pedant or the monopolist, were welcome.
America lacked enthusiasm for the man of profound, detached, and “pure” intelligence. A wholesome fear of the exotic and the hieratic, of the power of the mind to raise any man above men, inspired American faith in the “divine average,” a faith which would not have grown without American opportunity. “He does not find, as in Europe,” Crèvecoeur observed of the immigrant to America in 1782, “a crowded society, where every place is over-stocked; he does not feel that perpetual collision of parties, that difficulty of beginning, that contention which oversets so many. There is room for everybody in America; has he any particular talent, or industry? he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds.”