The Jeffersonian revolution and all that it meant socially and culturally were driven by the same dynamic forces that had been at work since at least the middle of the eighteenth century—population growth and movement and commercial expansion.1 By 1800 5,297,000 people lived in the United States, one-fifth of whom were black slaves. Since most adult whites married at early ages, fertility rates were high, with over seven births per woman being the average, nearly double that of the European states.2 After 1800 this fertility rate began to decline as people became more conscious of their ability to create prosperity for themselves and their children by limiting the size of their families. Nevertheless, the population as a whole continued to expand dramatically, doubling every twenty years or so, twice the rate of growth of any European nation.
At the pace America was growing, one observer predicted that the country would contain 860 million people by the middle of the twentieth century.3 Americans marveled at the fact that by 1810 the United States, numbering over seven million people, was nearly as populous as England and Wales had been in 1801.4 And it was a remarkably young population: in 1810 36 percent of the white population was under the age of ten, and nearly 70 percent was under the age of twenty-five.
It was also a population on the move as never before. While the sparse population of the new state of Tennessee (1796) multiplied tenfold between 1790 and 1820, New York’s already considerable population more than quadrupled, much of it spilling into the western parts of the state; in the single decade between 1800 and 1810 New York added fifteen new counties, 147 new towns, and 374,000 new inhabitants. “The woods are full of new settlers,” remarked a traveler in upstate New York in 1805. “Axes were resounding and the trees literally were falling about us as we passed.” Although nine-tenths of the country’s population in 1800 still lived east of the Alleghenies, increasing numbers of Americans were crossing the mountains into the West—to the dread of many Federalists. As the high-toned Federalist Gouverneur Morris warned, the backcountry folk were crude and unenlightened and were “always most adverse to the best measures.”5
Before the Revolution the territory of Kentucky had contained almost no white settlers. By 1800 it had become a state (1792) and grown to over 220,000; at that point not a single adult Kentuckian had been born and grown up within the state’s borders. And these burgeoning Westerners were prospering. Despite the poor roads and the prevalence of simple log cabins, observed a traveler in 1802, one could not find “a single family without milk, butter, smoked or salted meat—the poorest man has always one or two horses.” By 1800 most of the major cities of the future Midwest had already been founded—St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Erie, Cleveland, Nashville, and Louisville.6
When the defeat of the Indians at Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 opened up the southern two-thirds of the present state of Ohio to white settlement, people began pouring into the region. Between 1800 and 1810 Ohio gained statehood (1803) and grew from 45,000 inhabitants to over 230,000. Cincinnati was already being called “the Great Emporium of the West.” By 1820, only thirty-two years after the first permanent white settlers arrived, Ohio had a population of over a half million people and was the fifth-largest state in the Union. The state was creating so many new towns that Ohioans complained they had run out of names for them. Gazetteers in America, it was said, could not keep up with the “very frequent changes” in the dividing of territories and naming of places “which are almost daily taking place”: it was a problem “peculiar to a new, progressive and extensive country.”7
In 1795 the population west of the mountains had been only 150,000; by 1810 it was more than a million.8 The Americans, said the British traveler Isaac Weld, were a restless people, always on the lookout for something better or more profitable. They “seldom or ever consider whether the part of the country to which they are going is healthy or otherwise.. . . If the lands in one part . . . are superior to those in another in fertility; if they are in the neighborhood of a navigable river, or situated conveniently to a good market; if they are cheap and rising in value, thither the American will gladly emigrate, let the climate be ever so unfriendly to the human system.”9
Lucy Fletcher Kellogg’s father, like many other American farmers, traded goods, ran a brickyard, kept a tavern, and was always on the move. Her parents had a farm in Sutton, Massachusetts, she recalled in her memoir, but “in accordance with the instincts of New England people, they must sell the farm and move to New Hampshire or some other new place.” The father of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, moved his family seven times in fourteen years. Others moved at least three or four times in a lifetime, selling their land to new settlers at a profit each time; “they are,” it was noted, “very indifferent ploughmen” anyway. Americans had a reputation among the Spanish of being able to travel “200 leagues with no other aids than a sack of cornmeal and flask of powder.”10
The country still remained overwhelmingly rural and agricultural—a puzzling condition that seemed to violate the widely accepted theories of social development. An expanding population was presumably the force that compelled a society to move from one stage of civilization to another. But that was not happening in America.
During the early nineteenth century nineteen out of twenty Americans continued to live in rural places, that is, unincorporated sites with fewer than twenty-five hundred inhabitants. In 1800 nearly 90 percent of the labor force was still engaged in farming. Even the more urbanized areas of New England and the Mid-Atlantic had 70 percent of their workers on farms. In 1800 only thirty-three towns claimed a population of twenty-five hundred or more, and only six of these urban areas had populations over ten thousand.11 By contrast, in 1801 one-third of people in England lived in cities, and only 36 percent of English workers engaged in agriculture.
If the United States were eventually to become a fiscal-military state capable of taking on the European powers, this was not the way to go about it. A rural, underdeveloped society preoccupied with farming was not one that could sustain a European-type war-making capacity, and it was not at all what many Federalists had wanted or expected. The Federalists had thought that America’s rapid multiplication of people would force the country to develop the same sorts of civilized urban institutions, the same kinds of integrated social hierarchies and industrial centers, the same types of balanced economies in which manufacturing was as important as farming, the same sorts of bureaucratic governments that made the states of Europe, at least before the accursed French Revolution erupted, so impressive, so powerful, and so civilized. They assumed that American society would eventually become more like that of Europe and that what Franklin had once called the “general happy Mediocrity” of America would gradually disappear.12
But the opposite was happening. Not only was American social mediocrity spreading at an alarming rate, but more and more Americans were taking advantage of the availability of land in America and living apart from all traditional social hierarchies—especially in the new Western areas, where, in the words of George Clymer of Philadelphia, there were “no private or publick associations for the common good.” Indeed, conservatives asked, could the frontier areas even “be called society where every man is for himself alone and has no regard for any other person farther than he can make him subservient to his own views”?13 Settlers on the move had little respect for authority. A mobile population, one Kentuckian told James Madison in 1792, “must make a very different mass from one which is composed of men born and raised on the same spot.. . . They see none about them to whom or to whose families they have been accustomed to think themselves inferior.” In these new Western territories, where “society is yet unborn,” where “your connections and friends are absent, and at a distance,” and where there was “no distinction assumed on account of rank or property,” it was difficult to put together anything that resembled a traditional social order, or even a civilized community. Kentucky, like all frontier areas, travelers noted, was “different from a staid and settled society.. . . A certain loss of civility is inevitable.” Yet to some “plain, poor” Yankees from New England like Amos Kendall, Lexington, Kentucky, was already too aristocratic and stratified for their tastes, and they continued to look westward for opportunities.14
The changes, especially outside of the South, seemed overwhelming. America, noted a French observer, was a “country in flux; that which is true today as regards its population, its establishments, its prices, its commerce will not be true six months from now.”15 Americans appeared to love liberty too much. They “dread everything that preaches constraint,” concluded another foreign observer. “Natural freedom . . . is what pleases them.”16
Although many Americans, including Jefferson, celebrated the freedom that such weak social constraints offered, most Federalists were horrified by what was happening, dismayed and disillusioned by all the licentious changes and breakdowns of authority. Perhaps no Federalist was more troubled than William Cooper of Otsego County, New York. Cooper had once imagined becoming a genteel patriarch, but his design soon began collapsing all about him. The settlers of Cooperstown grew in numbers and diversity and became strangers to Cooper and to one another. His town was increasingly racked by lawsuits, bankruptcies, disobedient servants, vandalism, thefts, and incidents of violence and arson. Cooper himself was caned in a Cooperstown street in 1807, imparting to him and his family a growing dread that anarchy and chaos were all about them.
By the time his political world was disintegrating, Cooper had concluded that the gentility he had so relentlessly sought was beyond his grasp and that he must look to his five sons and two daughters to finish what he had begun. But in 1800 his cherished elder daughter, Hannah, died in a fall from a horse. He sent William Jr. to Princeton, where the boy became a dissipated dandy, spending lavishly on clothes, wines, and cigars before being expelled in 1802 on suspicion of setting a fire that burned Nassau Hall. He next sent James to Yale, where the future novelist ran up debts and behaved as foolishly as his brother had: in 1805 he too was expelled—for fighting and using gunpowder to blow off his opponent’s dormitory door; James then ran off and joined the navy. After William Cooper died in 1809, his children thought they could continue to live extravagantly. But Cooper’s great wealth was more apparent than real, and within fifteen years his entire estate was gone, eaten up by debts, failed speculations, unpaid mortgages, and legal suits.
The Cooper family was devastated. Ill equipped to deal with financial problems, four of the Cooper sons succumbed to some combination of stress and high living during the next decade and one by one died prematurely—all in their thirties. By 1819, a decade after the father’s death, only two children were left—the second daughter, Ann, and James, the future novelist. The family property in Cooperstown was bought up by a new breed of upstart, William Holt Averell, the son of a Cooperstown shoemaker and a shrewd hard-nosed capitalist who would have nothing to do with wasteful spending on gentility: he trained his sons to be businessmen, not gentlemen, and succeeded where Cooper had failed.
ALTHOUGH AMERICANS, compared to Englishmen, had never been very respectful of authority, the Revolution seemed to have emboldened many of them to challenge all hierarchy and all distinctions, even those naturally earned. Middling men began asserting themselves as never before. As one foreigner noted, “The lowest here . . . stand erect and crouch not before any man.”17 After the Revolution Bostonians stopped using the designations of “yeoman” and “husbandman” and began recording the occupational titles among artisans less and less. All adult white males began using the designation of “Mr.,” which had traditionally belonged exclusively to the gentry. Even the city council of Charleston, South Carolina, felt sufficient egalitarian pressure to abolish the titles of “Esq.” and “His Honor.”18
By what right did authority claim obedience? This was the question now being asked of every institution, every organization, every individual. It was as if the Revolution had set in motion a disintegrative force that could not be stopped.
European travelers, especially those from England, were, of course, those most dismayed by the society of the new Republic, and much of their criticism was devastating. Many Europeans regarded the English as wild and liberty-loving, but by comparison the licentious Americans made the English seem stable and staid. Many Americans naturally tried to discount this criticism, but for the Federalists most of it was only too true. How could they not agree with foreign critics who declared that in the United States “liberty and equality level all ranks”?
One of the most colorful and censorious of these foreigners was Charles William Janson, an English immigrant who spent more than a dozen years between 1793 and 1806 trying to understand the people of this new country, who by 1806 were, he said, “the only remaining republicans in the civilized world.” Janson said that he had come to America “with an intention of passing a considerable part of his life there,” but a series of land-speculating and business failures eventually drove him back to England. American customs and manners, he concluded in his book The Stranger in America (1807), were “in every respect uncongenial to English habits, and to the tone of an Englishman’s constitution.” Yet his account of the emerging nature of America’s character was no more disparaging and despairing than the accounts of many Federalists, who were equally fearful of the brutality and vulgarity the new republican society seemed to be breeding. By the early nineteenth century Janson was not the only one in America who felt that he was a stranger in the land.19
Janson’s views of America’s democratic society, where the meanest and most ignorant people “consider themselves on an equal footing with the best educated people in the country,” were actually no more severe than those of Joseph Dennie, whom Janson quoted. The Boston-born and Harvard-educated Dennie was the editor of the Port Folio, the most influential and longest-lasting literary journal of its day and the most distinguished Federalist publication in the age of Jefferson. In 1803 in one of his early issues Dennie wrote with more valor than discretion that “a democracy is scarcely tolerable at any period of national history. Its omens are always sinister.. . . It was weak and wicked in Athens. It was bad in Sparta, and worse in Rome. It has been tried in France, and has terminated in despotism. It was tried in England, and rejected with the utmost loathing and abhorrence. It is on its trial here, and the issue will be civil war, desolation, and anarchy.” For these comments Dennie was hauled into court as a factious and seditious person, though eventually acquitted.20
But Dennie and other Federalists soon came to realize that democracy in America was not going to end, as it had elsewhere, in anarchy leading to dictatorship and despotism. Instead, American democracy, driven by the most intense competitiveness, especially for the making of money, was going to end in orgies of getting and spending. Too many of the American people seemed absorbed in the selfish pursuit of their own interests, buying and selling like no other people in the world. Federalist literati and others were appalled by what seemed to be the sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of hustling “businessmen,” which was the term that soon came into favor—appropriately enough, for the whole society seemed absorbed in business. “Enterprise,” “improvement,” and “getting ahead” were everywhere extolled in the press. “The voice of the people and their government is loud and unanimous for commerce,” said a disgruntled and bewildered Dr. Samuel Mitchill in 1800. “Their inclination and habits are adapted to trade and traffic,” declared this professor of natural history at Columbia College, who knew so much that he was called “a living encyclopedia” and “the walking library.” “From one end of the continent to the other,” said Mitchill, “the universal roar is Commerce! Commerce! at all events, Commerce!”21
Although nearly all Americans lived in rural places and were engaged in farming, most of them, as Professor Mitchill correctly perceived, were by 1800 much involved in commerce and the exchange of goods. The extent of their commercial involvement has been a matter of some debate among historians. Some have suggested that many eighteenth-century farmers, especially in New England, were pre-modern and anti-capitalist in their outlook. These farmers, these historians contend, were mainly engaged in household modes of production in which they sought not to maximize profits but only to satisfy their family needs and maintain the competency and independence of their households. They sought land not to increase their personal wealth but to provide estates for their lineal families. Rather than relying on extended markets, these husbandmen tended to produce goods for their own consumption or for exchanges within their local communities.22
While eighteenth-century farmers may have been less commercial than they would become in the nineteenth century, they certainly knew about trade and commerce. Many, if not most, at least occasionally brought “surpluses” to markets beyond their neighborhoods—selling tobacco and other staples to Britain, sending wheat and other foodstuffs to Europe, and exporting lumber and livestock to the West Indies. In other words, from the beginning of the seventeenth century colonial Americans exchanged goods and knew about marketplaces; but, in New England at least, many farmers may not have participated in what economists call a true market economy. Only when the market became separated from the political, social, and cultural systems constraining it and became itself an agent of change, only when most people in the society became involved in buying and selling and began to think in terms of bettering themselves economically—only then did Americans begin to enter a market economy.
Economic historian Winifred Barr Rothenberg has dated the emergence of this market economy in New England in the several decades following the American Revolution. She has discovered that market integration, the price convergence of commodities, and the development of capital markets in rural New England took place in this period—brought about by the impersonal exchanges of the farmers themselves. In the 1780s and 1790s farmers were lending more money more often to ever more scattered and distant debtors and shifting more of their assets away from cattle and implements toward liquid and evanescent forms of wealth. At the same time as interest rates, or the price of money, began to float free from their ancient and customary restraints, agricultural productivity of all sorts began to increase rapidly. By 1801, for example, the output of grains in a sample of Massachusetts towns was nearly two and a half times what it had been in 1771. Only when these farmers increased their productivity to the point where an increasing proportion of them could engage in manufacturing and at the same time provide a home market for that manufacturing—only then could the takeoff into capitalistic expansion take place.23
Since this remarkable increase in labor productivity occurred well before the availability of any new farm machinery or any other technological change, it can be explained only by the more efficient use and organization of labor. In 1795 a Massachusetts physician noted the changes taking place among the farmers of his little town. “The former state of cultivation was bad, but is much altered for the better,” he said. “A spirit of emulation prevails among the farmers. Their enclosures, which used to be fenced with hedge and log fences, are now generally fenced with good stone wall,” a sure sign, he suggested, that the farmers were using their land more intensively and more productively.24 Farmers were becoming more productive because they glimpsed the prospect of improving their standard of living by consuming luxury goods that hitherto only the gentry had consumed—feather instead of straw mattresses, pewter instead of wooden bowls, and silk instead of cotton handkerchiefs.
“Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to labour and Industry?” Benjamin Franklin had asked in 1784—a question that flew in the face of age-old wisdom. For centuries it was assumed that most people would not work unless they had to. “Everybody but an idiot,” declared the enlightened English agricultural writer Arthur Young, in a startling summary of this traditional view, “knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.”25 But farmers now were working harder, not, as conventional thinking would have it, out of poverty and necessity, but in order to increase their purchase of luxury goods and become more respectable.
ALTHOUGH MOST FEDERALISTS and even some Republican elites like Professor Mitchill, who later became a Republican congressman and U.S. senator from New York, were frightened by the growing mania for commerce and money, believing that it resembled people’s being at war with one another, most of the farmers and businessmen themselves welcomed this competitive scramble. Some of them, in the Northern states at least, used the competitive vehicle of the Republican party to challenge the static Federalist establishment. But others sensed, as John Adams had, that competition arose out of the egalitarianism of the society as people sought not just to keep up with the Joneses but to get ahead of them. And they came to see that a spirit of emulation was good for prosperity.
Americans were in fact using competition to democratize ambition and make it the basis for a new kind of middling society. Other societies, said Noah Webster, trained their children in the occupations of their parents. But this European practice “cramps genius and limits the progress of national improvement.” Americans celebrated the “ambition and fire of youth” and allowed genius to express itself. Many cultures feared the expression of ambition because it was an aristocratic passion that belonged to the Macbeths of the world—great-souled individuals who were apt to be dangerous. Americans, however, need not have this fear, at least not to the same extent. In a republic ambition should belong to everyone, and, said Webster, it “should be governed, rather than repressed.”26
Elkanah Watson was eager to exploit this popular characteristic of American culture. Watson, the son of a Plymouth, Massachusetts, artisan and representative of the new breed of hustlers springing up everywhere, discovered that the earlier aristocratic and philosophical techniques of stimulating agricultural reform through scientific societies of gentleman-farmers would not work in America. Because Americans were too independent for such learned paternalism, Watson in 1810 devised for Berkshire County in western Massachusetts what soon became the familiar American county fair, with exhibitions, music, dancing, singing, and prizes awarded for the best crops and the biggest livestock. In 1812 “the female part of the community in a spirit of honorable competition” was allowed to demonstrate cloth, lace, hats, and other products of domestic manufacturing. Women began hanging their prizewinning certificates on the walls of their homes, where “they excite the envy of a whole neighbourhood.” Indeed, said Watson, producing “some tincture of envy” was crucial in calling forth “more extended efforts” by the farmers and their wives. The fairs, which Watson claimed were “original and peculiar,” were designed “to excite a lively spirit of competition” by exploiting the desire for “personal ambition” that he claimed was characteristic of all Americans. Watson knew, as the enlightened gentry apparently did not, that society had to be dealt with “in its actual state of existence,—not as we could wish it.” One of his fairs, he said, produced “more practical good” and more actual agricultural improvement “than ten studied, wiredrawn books” written by “scientific gentlemen farmers” settled in their Eastern cities. The only way of achieving public benefits in agriculture and domestic manufacturing, said Watson, was to create “a system congenial to American habits, and the state of our society,” and to incite the farmers’ “self-love,—self-interest, combined with a natural love of country.” Watson thought that his county fairs had produced “a general strife” among farmers and had done much to awaken the slumbers of husbandry in the United States.27
Teachers in New England developed a new pedagogy based on ambition and competition instead of the traditional resort to corporal punishment. Many of the new academies that were springing up all over New England were doing with schoolchildren what Elkanah Watson was doing with his farmers and his county fairs—exciting among them “a spirit of emulation.” A schoolmaster in a tiny Massachusetts town discovered that he could get his male students to study hard by raising “their ambition to such a pitch that that their greatest thought was, who would perform the best.” Even the young women in the Litchfield Female Academy lived in a highly competitive atmosphere, with the girls repeatedly and publicly pitted against one another for awards, prizes, and credit marks. “Ambition has been raised to an uncommon degree, and our exertions have been wonderfully answered,” declared one of their teachers. Encouraging young people of all ranks to be ambitious in this manner was bound to have a powerful effect on the society.
Many, of course, continued to urge patience and contentment with one’s lot and to raise fears that too much stress on ambition could arouse envy and other harmful passions. “A degree of emulation, among literary institutions, is proper,” warned a Calvinist preacher. “But when it goes to pull down one, in order to build another up, it is wrong.” Despite these sorts of misgivings, however, the traditional way of doing things could scarcely stand against the newly awakened sense of ambition among so many common folk.28
Competition existed everywhere in America, even in the South, where it took a different form. Many Southern planters, even though they were good Jeffersonian Republicans, were just as contemptuous of crass money-making as Northern Federalists, but they did enjoy competing with one another. Of course, they valued hierarchy but, being uncertain of their position in it, were always eager to assert their abilities and status, often through horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, and dueling.
Many Southern gentlemen possessed hair-trigger tempers and were acutely sensitive to any perceived insult, however slight.29 In 1806 Andrew Jackson, son of Scots-Irish immigrants from northern Ireland, a sometime congressman and U.S. senator from Tennessee, and a great lover of horse racing and cockfighting, ended up killing a man in a duel that began with a quarrel over a horse race wager. Duels growing out of the most trivial causes were not uncommon, especially on the frontier, where honor and gentlemanly status were especially vague and fluid and Celtic pride and touchiness were everywhere. Since Southerners bet on everything, they bet on the outcome of duels. In Nashville bets were freely made on Jackson’s duel, mostly against Jackson since his opponent was considered the better shot. Jackson took a bullet that remained lodged in his chest for the rest of his life.
So barbarous was the fighting among commoners in the South that some observers, including New England Federalists and visiting foreigners, thought the white Americans’ behavior was “worthy of their savage neighbors.”30 Men on the frontier often fought with “no holds barred,” using their hands, feet, and teeth to disfigure or dismember each other until one or the other surrendered or was incapacitated. “Scratching, pulling hair, choking, gouging out each other’s eyes, and biting off each other’s noses” were all tried, recalled Daniel Drake, growing up in late eighteenth-century Kentucky. “But what is worse than all,” observed the English traveler Isaac Weld, “these wretches in their combat endeavor to their utmost to tear out each other’s testicles.”31
Most of these practices of rough-and-tumble fighting had been brought over from the Celtic borderlands of the British Isles—Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall. Indeed, some historians have persuasively argued that most of the characteristics of the Southern “rednecks”—including their indolence, the making of “moonshine,” fiddling and banjo-playing, chewing tobacco, hunting, and hog-raising—can be traced back to their Celtic ancestors. This is especially true, they say, of the hot-headedness and propensity to personal violence of backcountry Southern “crackers,” with someone like Andrew Jackson being a prime representative.32
But what were occasional practices of personal violence in Britain became a unique fighting style in the American South, and gouging out the eyes of one’s opponent became the defining element of that style. Although the acerbic Englishman Charles Janson may have been exaggerating in claiming that “this more than savage custom is daily practiced among the lower classes in the southern states,” he was not wrong in suggesting that it was common. Not only had the Reverend Jedidiah Morse in his American Geography confrmed the prevalence of the practice of gouging, but many early nineteenth-century travelers besides Janson witnessed examples of these gouging matches.33
The fighters became heroes in their local communities, and their success in these rough-and-tumble matches generated its own folklore. Eventually these matches became part of the exaggerated boasting and bombast that came to characterize Southwestern humor. At the same time, the prevalence of such personal violence convinced many observers, Federalists and European travelers alike, that as Americans moved westward and down the Ohio River they were losing civilization and reverting to savagery.34
Barbarism was not confined to the rural South and Southwest but seemed to be spreading even to the urban North and Northeast. Philadelphia in the 1790s was full of cockfighting, gambling, and quarreling that often led to fistfights.35 Despite all the rhetoric promoting politeness and civility, Americans by 1800 were already known for pushing and shoving each other in public and for their dread of ceremony. Foreigners thought the Americans’ eating habits were atrocious, their food execrable, and their coffee detestable. Americans tended to eat fast, often sharing a common bowl or cup, to bolt their food in silence, and to use only their knives in eating. Everywhere travelers complained about “the violation of decorum, the want of etiquette, the rusticity of manners in this generation.”36
ALL THIS VULGARITY was changing the character of political leadership. With self-interested behavior becoming so common, the classical republican conception of governmental leadership that the Founders had extolled was rapidly losing its meaning. It became increasingly clear that society could no longer expect men to sacrifice their time and money—their private interests—for the sake of the public. It was said that John Jay had hesitated to accept a position in the new federal government because he was “waiting to see which Salary is best, that of Lord Chief Justice or Secretary of State.” If this were the case with someone as wealthy and prominent as Jay, public office could no longer be regarded merely as a burden that prominent gentlemen had an obligation to bear. If anything, holding office was becoming the source of that wealth and social authority.37
Many Americans of the early Republic, with varying degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm, came to believe that what they once thought was true was no longer true. Government officials were no longer to play the role of umpires, standing above the competing interests of the marketplace and making impartial judgments about what was good for the whole society. The democratic nightmare that had been first experienced in the 1780s was becoming all too pervasive and real. Elected officials were bringing the partial, local interests of the society, and sometimes even their own interests, right into the workings of government. The word “logrolling” in the making of laws (that is, the trading of votes by legislators for each other’s bills) began to be used for the first time, to the bewilderment of the Federalists. “I do not well understand the Term,” said an Ohio Federalist, “but I believe it means bargaining with each other for the little loaves and fishes of the State.”38
Under such circumstances partisanship and parties—using government to promote partial interests—became increasingly legitimate. As property as a source of independence and authority gave way to an entrepreneurial idea of property, as a commodity to be exchanged in the marketplace, the older proprietary qualifications for officeholding and the suffrage existing in many of the states lost their meaning and soon fell away. Property that fluctuated and changed hands so frequently was no basis for the right to vote. When Republicans, such as those of New York in 1812, claimed that the mere owning of property was no “proof of superior virtue, discernment or patriotism,” conservative Federalists had no answer.39 In state after state the Democratic-Republicans successfully pushed for an expansion of the suffrage. By 1825 every state but Rhode Island, Virginia, and Louisiana had achieved universal white manhood suffrage; by 1830 only Rhode Island, which had once been the most democratic place in North America, retained a general freehold qualification for voting.
The expansion of the suffrage and the celebration of ordinary people meant that ordinary people might even become government officials, as many increasingly did in the Northern states in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Republican leaders in the North repeatedly appealed to mechanics, laborers, and farmers to elect men of their own kind. “Does a nobleman . . . know the wants of the farmer and the mechanic?” asked a New York broadside in 1810. “If we give such men the management of our concerns, where is our INDEPENDENCE and FREEDOM?” Republican spokesmen warned the common people not to elect “men whose aristocratic doctrine teaches that the rights and representative authority of the people are vested in a few proud elites” and used the Revolutionary idea of equality to justify electing ordinary men to office. To the surprise of many, Jonathan Jamison of Indiana Territory, a former clerk in the Land Office, openly and successfully campaigned for office in 1809 and continued to use his new brand of popular politics to become the state’s first governor when Indiana was admitted to the Union in 1816.40
Even parts of the South, as a North Carolinian complained in 1803, were not immune from the new egalitarian politics. “The charge of aristocracy, fatal in America, was pressed against him,” he explained, in accounting for the defeat of former governor and Federalist-leaning William Davie in his 1803 bid for Congress, “and the radicalism of the people caused a revolt against their ancient leader.” Naturally the Old Republican John Randolph was disgusted at what was happening. The affairs of the nation, he told his fellow congressmen, had been “commit ted to Tom, Dick, and Harry, the refuse of the retail trade of politics.”41
Even when political candidates were not ordinary, many now found it advantageous to pose as such. In the campaign for governor of New York in 1807 Daniel Tompkins, successful lawyer and graduate of Columbia College, was portrayed as a simple “Farmers Boy” in contrast to his opponent, Morgan Lewis, who was an in-law of the aristocratic Livingston family. Of course, the New York Federalists in 1810 tried to combat Tompkins and the Republicans with their own plebeian candidate, Jonas Platt, “whose habits and manners,” said the Federalists, “are as plain and republican as those of his country neighbors.” Unlike Tompkins, Platt was not “a city lawyer who rolls in splendor and wallows in luxury.”42 In trying to out-popularize the Republicans, however, the Federalists could only ultimately lose, for most Republicans, in the North at least, did in fact come from lower social strata than the Federalists.
The common people increasingly seemed to want unpretentious men as their rulers, men who never went to college and never put on airs. Such a man was Simon Snyder, son of a poor mechanic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Snyder began his career as a tanner and scrivener and acquired what education he had by attending night school taught by a Quaker. He eventually became a storekeeper, mill owner, and successful businessman, so successful in fact that he was soon appointed justice of the peace and judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Entering the Pennsylvania assembly in 1797, Snyder moved up to become the speaker of the state’s house of representatives in 1802 and then governor in 1808, but he never shed his lowly origins. When he was elected governor, he refused an honor guard at his inauguration. “I hate and despise all ostentation—pomp and parade as anti-democratic . . .,” he said. “I should feel exceedingly awkward” with such pretension. When opponents mocked Snyder’s obscure origins and called him and his followers “clodhoppers,” he and his supporters quite shrewdly picked up the epithet and began proudly wearing it. Being a clodhopper in a society of clodhoppers was the source of much of Snyder’s political success. The snobbish Philadelphia-based American Philosophical Society responded to Snyder’s election by quietly dropping the office of patron, which the incumbent governor had always held.43
Feelings of equality spread throughout Northern society and even began to be expressed in dress. Unlike in the eighteenth century, when gentlemen often wore varied and colorful clothes, nineteenth-century men began dressing alike, in black coats and pantaloons, as befitting solid and substantial businessmen who considered themselves the equals of every other man.44
By the first decade of the nineteenth century many gentlemen like Benjamin Latrobe, President Jefferson’s surveyor of public buildings, thought that democracy was getting out of hand. Although Latrobe was a good Republican, he nonetheless complained in 1806 to the Italian patriot Philip Mazzei that too many representatives in America’s national government resembled their constituents and were ignorant and “unlearned.” Philadelphia and its suburbs sent to the Congress not a single man of letters. One congressman was indeed a lawyer, “but of no eminence.” Another congressman, said Latrobe, was a clerk in a bank, and “the others are plain farmers.” From the county was sent a blacksmith and from just over the river a butcher.45
The butcher Latrobe referred to was probably the congressman who used his generous congressional franking privileges in Washington to send his linen home for laundering. It was not much of an abuse, critics said, since the butcher-congressman “was known to change his shirt only once a week.” When invited to President Jefferson’s dinner at the White House, the butcher, noted a British witness, “observing a leg of mutton of a miserably lean description,. . . could not help forgetting the legislator for a few moments, expressing the feelings of his profession and exclaiming that at his stall no such leg of mutton should ever have found a place.”46
Latrobe believed that the “ideal rank” of gentlemen “which manners has established” had virtually disappeared, even in the city of Philadelphia. Latrobe admitted that there were “solid and general advantages” to this kind of egalitarian society. “But to a cultivated mind, to a man of letters, to a lover of the arts,” in other words, to someone like him, “it presents a very unpleasant picture.” American society, based as it was on “the freedom which opens every legal avenue to wealth to everyone individually,” made “all citizens rivals in the pursuit of riches,” which in turn weakened the ties that bound them to one another and rendered them indifferent as to how they made their money.47
THE SPREAD OF EQUALITY and changing conceptions of political leadership generated intense partisan passions. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans may not have been modern parties, but they increasingly acted like parties, and they produced powerful loyalties among large numbers of the population, especially among the Republicans. In 1809 the Republican minister William Bentley in Salem, Massachusetts, declared that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate each [other] in time of war.” Families broke up over politics, and employers dismissed their employees because of party differences. Political passions, noted an English visitor, even reached into the grave. In 1808 Jeffersonian Nathaniel Ames refused to attend the funeral of his brother Fisher Ames after the Massachusetts Federalists “snatched” the “putrid corpse” and turned the burial into one of their “political funerals.”48 In Ohio in 1804 Republican animosity toward the Federalists led some of them to want to change the names of Hamilton and Adams counties—”republicanism . . . run mad,” admitted a moderate Republican. The Federalists’ feelings ran just as high. Upon learning of the death of a Republican, a Federalist in 1808 exclaimed, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”49
Partisanship sometimes resulted in violence. “Three-fourths of the duels which have been fought in the United States were produced by political disputes,” claimed a South Carolinian in 1805; such fights were inevitable as long as “party violence is carried to an abominable excess.”50 But since dueling required the participants to think of themselves as gentlemanly equals, many Federalists often resorted to caning their Republican enemies.
During an 1807 election campaign in Albany, New York, a Republican meeting issued a resolution on April 17 questioning the integrity of General Solomon Van Rensselaer, a prominent Federalist. On April 21 Van Rensselaer sought out Elisha Jenkins, the author of the provocative resolution, and beat him with a heavy cane and then stomped on him with his feet. Partisans on each side joined in the fray and turned the city, according to one observer, into “a tumultuous sea of heads, over which clattered a forest of canes; the vast body, now surging this way, now that, as the tide of combat ebbed or flowed.” Nine days later an Albany newspaper gave thanks for the end of an election campaign that had resulted in violence that was “little short of insurrection and blood.”51
The most well known episode of partisan violence in the period took place in Massachusetts in 1806 when the state was torn apart for months by what was called a “political murder.” Benjamin Austin, a prominent and zealous Republican editor, noted for his sharp tongue and his vigorous attacks on the Federalists, made some public reference to “a damned Federalist lawyer.” In response, that lawyer, a young man named Thomas O. Selfridge, arrogantly called for a retraction and, when Austin ignored him, publicly posted Austin as “a coward, a liar, and a scoundrel.” To revenge this insult to his father, Austin’s son, an eighteen-year-old senior at Harvard, sought out Selfridge in the streets of Boston and struck him with a cane; Selfridge pulled a pistol he had been carrying and shot and killed the young man. Selfridge quickly turned himself in, in order, as he later said, “to escape into prison to elude the fury of democracy.” Selfridge’s trial, at which he was finally acquitted, further inflamed partisan passions. Selfridge himself added to the ugly atmosphere by publishing an extraordinarily offensive pamphlet. The hostility the case aroused lingered on for years.52
BUT IT WAS NOT JUST PARTISAN POLITICS that generated violence. Personal violence was more common in America than it was in England. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania’s murder rate was twice that of London. In the newer counties of Pennsylvania assaults in the 1780s and 1790s made up over 40 percent of all allegations coming before grand juries. Complaints of personal violence in the state rose precipitously in the decades following the Revolution. Homicide rates in the Chesapeake and in the backcountry of the South reversed a century of decline and increased dramatically among both blacks and whites in the turbulent decades following the Revolution. In 1797 New York City saw a sudden rise in its homicide rate. During the twenty-six years between 1770 and 1796 the city experienced only seventeen homicides, including four that occurred during the chaotic years of 1783–1784 following the British evacuation. In 1797 the number of homicides went up and stayed there over the subsequent decades, resulting in a total of eighty homicides in the eighteen years between 1797 and 1815, including eleven in the single year of 1811. Equally alarming, especially to New Yorker Samuel L. Mitchill, was the high suicide rate in the city. Between 1804 and 1808 seventy-five adults killed themselves—a consequence, Mitchill concluded, of something “morbid in the mental constitution of the people.”53
By the late 1790s Americans sensed latent violence everywhere. News of reciprocal brutality and violence between whites and Indians on the frontiers gave people the uneasy sense that civility in America was becoming paper-thin and could be punctured by acts of barbarism at any time. Incidents of multiple family murders dramatically increased, with one of them becoming the basis for Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland.54 Even civilized and stable areas in New England seemed to be regressing. In 1796 and 1799 local authorities in rural areas of Massachusetts and Connecticut independently indicted two elderly men for bestiality, a crime that had not been prosecuted in New England for nearly a century.55 By modern standards murder was still rare, but nevertheless Americans expressed a fascination with horrific murders, especially those of passion. News of notorious trials of domestic violence, including cases of fathers raping their daughters, like the case of Ephraim Wheeler in western Massachusetts in 1805, were deeply unsettling and often blended into the partisan atmosphere of the time. Wheeler’s execution for his crime, for example, became a means by which the Massachusetts Republicans could accuse the Federalists in power of being proponents of “the sanguinary principles of a monarchical system.”56
Urban rioting became more prevalent and destructive. Street, tavern, and theater rowdiness, labor strikes, racial and ethnic conflicts—all increased greatly after 1800. Of course, mobbing and rioting had been common in the eighteenth century, but these nineteenth-century mobs were different. They were uncontrolled and sometimes murderous, and no longer paid tribute to paternalism and hierarchy as the relatively restrained mobs of the eighteenth century had done. Unlike the earlier colonial mobs, which were often made up of a cross-section of the community more or less under the control of elites, the mobs and gangs of the early Republic were composed of mostly unconnected and anonymous lowly people, full of class resentment, and thus all the more frightening. Indeed, Republicans in New York City played upon such resentment in 1801 by telling people in election handbills that the Federalist mayor “hates you; from his own soul he hates you . . .; do your duty and . . . you will get rid of a mayor who acts as if he thought a poor man had no more right than a horse.”57
The growing urban societies appeared to have lost all sense of cohesion and hierarchy; they had become, in the words of a longtime New York police magistrate, but “a heterogeneous mass” of men with “weak and depraved minds” and an “insatiable appetite for animal gratification.” Indeed, the population of the cities was now “so numerous that the citizens are not all known to each other,” thus allowing “depredators [to] merge in the mass, and spoliate in secret and safety.” Mounting fear of disorder compelled New York City to increase the numbers of watchmen from fifty in 1788 to 428 by 1825, which was nearly double the proportionate growth in population; and still the murderous rioting continued.58
The most serious rioting in the period took place in Baltimore during the opening weeks of the War of 1812. Since Baltimore was the fastest-growing city in the United States(its population of 46, 600 in 1810 made it the third-largest city in the country), it was being torn apart in every conceivable way—by politics, class, religion, ethnicity, nativist fears of immigration, and race. Between 1790 and 1810 the city’s percentage of blacks grew from 12 percent to 22 percent, with the proportion of free blacks among the African American population growing even faster, from 2 percent to 11 percent of the total population. Anglicans of English ancestry, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, and large numbers of Irish Catholics jostled with one another, all trying to fend off the astonishing growth of the Methodists. The occupational makeup of the city was less diverse but still mixed. Mechanics composed half the population, and merchants made up 15 percent. As masters turned into employers and journeymen became employees, the mechanics were at each other’s throats, especially as the master-employers began replacing the skilled journeymen with unskilled laborers, many of them blacks. Draymen, dock workers, sailors, and laborers, constituting perhaps another 15 percent of the population, composed the lowest ranks of the city’s society. The Republican-dominated city was a tinderbox, not needing much to touch it off.59
The rioting, which began on June 22, 1812, was sparked by the declaration of war against Great Britain and the long-existing division between the city’s Federalists and Republicans. A mob of thirty to forty Republican stalwarts dismantled the offices of a much-hated Federalist newspaper, which had been publishing vicious attacks on the Republicans and their unnecessary war. When the mayor, himself a Republican, tried to intervene, he was told by members of the mob that they knew him “very well, no body wants to hurt you; but the laws of the land must sleep, and laws of nature and reason prevail; that house is the Temple of Infamy; it is supported with English gold, and it must and shall come down to the ground.”60 This mob behaved in a traditional eighteenth-century manner, enforcing what it took to be natural standards of the community; indeed, according to a newspaper account, the members of the mob went about tearing down the building in a workman-like way, “as regularly as if they contracted to perform the job for pay.”61
This traditional mob action seemed to unleash emotions throughout the city. Protestants and Catholics and whites and blacks turned on one another. But it was the Federalists who aroused the most anger. On July 27, 1812, the Federalists, some of whom were ensconced in a house with guns and power, issued their newspaper once again. This provoked another Republican mob, largely composed of militant journeyman mechanics unrestrained by master artisans and other social superiors. The two dozen Federalists in the house were mostly members of Maryland’s elite, and they included two Revolutionary War generals; they thought that if they stood firm, the riffraff in front of their house would defer to their betters and melt away. The Federalists first fired warning shots, but when the mob persisted and stormed the house, they fired and killed two persons. When the mob set up a cannon in front of the house, the city authorities finally acted and negotiated the surrender of the Federalists.
The Federalists requested that they be taken to the jail in carriages—their usual aristocratic mode of transportation—but the mob wanted them conveyed in carts, the way criminals were transported. The Republican authorities finally insisted that they walk to the jail, where presumably they would be safe. But the Republican mob was not satisfied. The next night it attacked the lightly guarded jail and beat the Federalist prisoners, some of them senseless, stabbing them and tearing off their genteel clothes, the most conspicuous symbol of their aristocratic status. One Revolutionary War veteran, General James N. Lingan, died of his wounds, and the other, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee and the celebrated eulogist of Washington, was crippled and never fully recovered. James Monroe was alarmed enough by the mobbing to warn President Madison of the “danger of a civil war, which may undermine our free system of government.”62
Still, the threat of mobbing in Baltimore continued. In early August the Federalists tried to send their newspaper through the mail to Baltimore; but when crowds threatened the U.S. Post Office, the city’s magistrates had enough, and the militia dispersed the mob.63
The summer’s bloody rioting in Baltimore, the worst in the history of the early Republic, was over, but mobbing was not. Mobs became more ferocious, more willing to engage in personal violence, and more ready to burn property than dismantle it. Such mobs were now prepared to act without elite participation or sanction, indeed, even to act against elites precisely because they were elites. By the second decade of the nineteenth century more and more political leaders were understandably calling for the creation of professional police forces to curb the increasing urban disorder. The social authority and the patronage power of individual magistrates and gentry were no longer able to keep the peace.
ONE EXPLANATION OFTEN OFFERED at the time for all this violence was the sudden rise in the drinking of hard liquor. Both the rough-and-tumble fighters and members of the urban mobs were often drunk. But such ordinary and lowly people were not the only ones drinking too much. The distinguished physician and professor of materia medica at Columbia College Dr. David Hosack complained that forty of the hundred physicians in New York City were drunkards. Even the misbehavior of children was blamed on too much alcohol. Charles Janson reported that he often had, “with horror, seen boys, whose dress indicated wealthy parents, intoxicated, shouting and swearing in the public streets.”64
Certainly the American consumption of distilled spirits was climbing rapidly during this period, rising from two and a half gallons per person per year in 1790 to almost five gallons in 1820—an amount nearly triple today’s consumption and greater than that of every major European nation at that time. If the 1,750,000 slaves, who did not have much access to alcohol, are excluded from these figures of 1820, then the Americans’ per capita consumption was even more remarkable—higher than at any other time in American history.
From the beginning of the Republic American grain farmers, particularly those of Celtic origin in western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee, had found it easier and more profitable to distill, ship, and sell whiskey than to try to ship and sell the perishable grain itself. Consequently, distilleries popped up everywhere, their numbers growing rapidly after the 1780s, reaching ten thousand by 1810. In 1815 even the little town of Peacham, Vermont, with a population of about fifteen hundred persons, had thirty distilleries. According to Samuel L. Mitchill in 1812, American stills were producing 23,720,000 gallons of “ardent spirits” a year—an alarming amount, said Mitchill, that was turning freedom into “rudeness and something worse.” He estimated that some workers in the country were consuming up to a quart of hard liquor every day.65
Distilling whiskey was good business because, to the astonishment of foreigners, nearly all Americans—men, women, children, and sometimes even babies—drank whiskey all day long. Some workers began drinking before breakfast and then took dram breaks instead of coffee breaks. “Treating” with drink by militia officers and politicians was considered essential to election. During court trials a bottle of liquor might be passed among the attorneys, spectators, clients, and the judge and jury.
Whiskey accompanied every communal activity, including women’s quilting bees. But since manliness was defined by the ability to drink alcohol, men were the greatest imbibers. And taverns, unlike tea parties and assemblies, were exclusively male preserves. Taverns existed everywhere; indeed, most towns, even in staid New England, had more taverns than churches. By 1810 Americans were spending 2 percent of their personal income on distilled spirits, a huge amount at a time when most people’s income went to the basic needs of food and shelter. One quarter of the total sales of an ordinary New Hampshire store was alcohol.66
The social consequences of all this drinking were frightening—absenteeism, accidental deaths, wife-beating, family desertion, rioting, and fighting. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a temperance reformer, outlined a number of diseases that he believed were aggravated by heavy drinking, including fevers of all sorts, obstructions of the liver, jaundice, hoarseness that often terminated in consumption, epilepsy, gout, and madness. In addition to diseases, said Rush in 1805, poverty and misery, crimes and infamy, were “all the natural and usual consequences of the intemperate use of ardent spirits.” Washington, who himself had a distillery, thought as early as 1789 that distilled spirits were “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country “The thing has arrived to such a height,” declared the Greene and Delaware Moral Society in 1815, “that we are actually threatened with becoming a nation of drunkards.”67
EXCESSIVE DRINKING MIGHT HAVE AGGRAVATED much of America’s licentious behavior, but many observers believed the ultimate source of the social disorder lay with the family. Charles Janson, for example, thought that all the intoxicated boys he had seen resulted from indulgent parents’ allowing their children to do whatever they wanted. John Adams went further and held parents responsible for all the social and political disorder in America. “The source of revolution, democracy, Jacobinism . . .,” he told his son in 1799, “has been a systematical dissolution of the true family authority.” Patriarchy was in disarray, and that had affected all authority, including that of government. In fact, said Adams, “there can never be any regular government of a nation without a marked subordination of mother and children to the father.”68
Without clearly understanding what was happening, fathers, husbands, ministers, masters, and magistrates—patriarchy everywhere—felt their authority draining away. Stephen Arnold’s trial for beating his adopted daughter to death attracted so much attention in upstate New York in 1805 precisely because people had become unsure of the proper relationship of children to their parents.69
The spectacular movement of people did not help matters any. Strangers were now everywhere, and no one was quite certain of who owed deference to whom. Children in greater numbers left their homes for new land, in most cases never to see their parents again. Because so many of their male citizens had set out in search of new opportunities in Vermont, Maine, or the West, the older states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had a majority of females—which may help account for their relative Federalist stability. But even in New England more sons and daughters asserted their independence from their parents in courtship and in choosing their marriage partners. Daughters in wealthy families tended to delay marriage, to marry out of birth order, or to remain single—all of which imply less parental involvement and greater freedom of choice for young women in marriage.
The Revolutionary War had relaxed the traditional norms of sexual behavior, particularly in the city of Philadelphia, which had been occupied by British soldiers. Not only did more women leave their marriages than ever before, but in the post-Revolutionary period the rate of bastardy nearly doubled, accompanied by a noticeable increase in prostitution and adultery, involving all ages and all social classes.70 With the dramatic slackening of laws against moral offenses in post-Revolutionary America, women began to experience unprecedented social and sexual freedom. Indeed, this new freedom accounts for the sudden flood of didactic novels and pedagogical writings warning of the dangers of seduction and female sexuality. Novels, such as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), Samuel Relf’s Infidelity (1797), and Sally Wood’s Darval (1801), assumed the responsibility of policing female sexuality that hitherto had been left to parents and legal authorities. Some physicians like Dr. Rush even began warning that guilt resulting from adultery, or any failure to control the passions, almost always ended in insanity. Leaders in the early Republic offered so many prescriptions for discipline precisely because there were so many frightening examples of disorder and indiscipline.71
For many observers it seemed as if sexual passions were running amuck. Premarital pregnancies dramatically increased, at rates not reached again until the 1960 s. In some communities one third of all marriages took place after the woman was pregnant. Between 1785 and 1797 Martha Ballard, a midwife in Lincoln County, Maine, delivered 106 women of their first babies; forty, or 38 percent, were conceived out of wedlock. All these statistics suggest that many sons and daughters were selecting their mates without waiting for parental approval.72
Everywhere traditional subordinations were challenged and undermined. America “is the place where old age will not be blindly worshipped,” promised one writer in 1789. Aged persons began to lose much of the respect they had commanded, and young people began asserting themselves in new ways. Seating in the New England meetinghouses by age was abandoned in favor of wealth. For the first time, American state legislatures began requiring that public officials retire at a prescribed age, usually sixty or seventy. By 1800 people were representing themselves as younger than they actually were, something not done earlier. At the same time, male dress, especially wigs, powdered hair, and knee-breeches that had earlier tended to favor older men (the calves being the last to show age), began giving way to styles, particularly hairpieces and trousers, that flattered young men. In family portraits the fathers traditionally had stood dominantly above their wives and children; now, however, they were more often portrayed alongside their families—a symbolic leveling.73
YOUTHS’ DEFIANCE OF TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY and hierarchy showed up dramatically in the colleges. It began on the eve of the Revolution when Harvard and Yale abandoned the ranking of entering students on the basis of their families’ social position and estate. Then in the aftermath of the Revolution distinctions between upper and lower classmen began to break down. And as the Revolutionary message of liberty and equality spread throughout the country, all distinctions were brought into question.
As Samuel Stanhope Smith of Princeton explained in 1785 to Charles Nisbet, who was about to leave Scotland to become the first president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, “our freedom certainly takes away the distinctions of rank that are so visible in Europe; and of consequence takes away, in the same proportion, those submissive forms of politeness that exist there.” Although suitably warned, Nisbet was nevertheless stunned by what he presumed the Revolution on behalf of liberty had done to American society. It had created “a new world . . . unfortunately composed . . . of discordant atoms, jumbled together by chance, and tossed by unconstancy in an immense vacuum.” Nisbet had bumbled into a society that “greatly wants a principle of attraction and cohesion.”74
The unruly students Nisbet encountered only deepened his despair. Indeed, when college students, like those of the University of North Carolina in 1796, could debate the issue of whether “the Faculty had too much authority,” then serious trouble could not be far away.75
Between 1798 and 1808 American colleges were racked by mounting incidents of student defiance and outright rebellion—on a scale never seen before or since in American history. At Brown in 1798 the students protested commencement speaking assignments and the price of board and brought the college to a halt. Eventually, Jonathan Maxey, the president of Brown, was forced to sign a “Treaty of Amity and Intercourse” with the rebellious students, offering amnesty to the protesters and establishing procedures for legitimate protest. At Union College in 1800 students petitioned that a professor be fired. Although the authorities dismissed the petition, the professor resigned, giving the students a victory.76
These incidents only foreshadowed much more extensive and violent student protests. In 1799 University of North Carolina students beat the president, stoned two professors, and threatened others with injury. In 1800 conflicts over discipline broke out at Harvard, Brown, William and Mary, and Princeton. In 1802 the rioting became even more serious. Williams College was under siege for two weeks. According to a tutor, Yale was in a state of “wars and rumors of wars.” After months of student rioting, Princeton’s Nassau Hall was mysteriously gutted by fire; the students, including William Cooper’s eldest son, were blamed for setting it a flame. As with other sorts of rioting, alcohol was often present. One student informed the president of Dartmouth that “the least quantity he could put up with . . . was from two to three pints daily.”77
Finally, college authorities tightened up their codes of discipline. But repression only provoked more student rebellions. In 1805 forty-five students, a majority of the total enrollment, withdrew from the University of North Carolina in protest over the new disciplinary rules, crippling the university. In 1807 Harvard students rioted over rotten cabbage and the general quality of food served in the commons; but, as a professor noted, complaining about the food was merely “the spark to set the combustibles on fire.” When the Harvard Corporation expelled twenty-three of the rebels, nearly two dozen other sympathetic students refused to return to the college. In the same year, student unrest at Princeton led to rioting and the calling out of the local town militia. Fifty-five students out of the 120 attending the college were expelled. In 1808 a student insurrection closed Williams for a month and forced the college to recruit a new faculty. Finally, college authorities up and down the continent began getting together and blacklisting the rebellious students, preventing them from enrolling in another college.78
People had a wide variety of explanations for the extraordinary student unrest. Some thought the students had read too much William Godwin and Thomas Paine and that French revolutionary principles of Jacobinism and atheism had infected their young minds. Others assumed that all these rich sons of elites were spoiled brats with too much money to spend, especially on whiskey and rum. Others reasoned that these mostly Federalist sons of the Founding generation were simply anxious to assert their manhood and prove their patriotism, citing especially the Quasi-War of 1798 for leaving these young men “panting for war.” Others believed that the rebellious students were simply reliving their fathers’ Revolution. As a Brown student wrote of the 1800 uprising: “Nothing but riot and confusion! No regard paid to superiors. Indeed, Sir, the Spirit of’ 75 was displayed in its brightest colors.”79
But still others supposed that the student disorder came from deeper evils in the society, from everything that the Jeffersonian Republican takeover of the government in 1801 had come to represent socially and culturally. It came, as the president of the University of Vermont declared in 1809,
from deficiencies in modern, early parental discipline; from erroneous notions of liberty and equality; from the spirit of revolution in the minds of men, constantly progressing, tending to a relinquishment of all ancient systems, discipline and dignities; from an increasing desire to leveldistinctions, traduce authority and diminish restraint; from licentious political discussions and controversies.80
THE REVOLUTION HAD REPRESENTED an attack on patriarchal monarchy, and that attack began to ramify throughout the society. In vain did conservatives complain that too many people had been captivated by “false ideas of liberty.” By collapsing all the different dependencies in the society into either freemen or slaves, the Revolution made it increasingly impossible for white males to accept any dependent status whatsoever. They were, as they told superiors who paternalistically tried to intervene in their private affairs, “free and independent.”81 Servitude of any sort in the early Republic suddenly became anomalous and anachronistic. In 1784 in New York a group, believing that indentured servitude was “contrary to . . . the idea of liberty this country has so happily established,” released a shipload of immigrant servants and arranged for public subscriptions to pay for their passage. As early as 1775 in Philadelphia the proportion of the workforce that was unfree—composed of servants and slaves—had already declined to 13 percent from the 40 to 50 percent that it had been in the middle of the eighteenth century. By 1800 less than 2 percent of the city’s labor force remained unfree. It was not long before indentured servitude, which had existed for centuries, disappeared altogether.82
With the republican culture talking of nothing but liberty, equality, and independence, maintaining even hired servants who worked for wages became a problem. Eighteenth-century advice manuals had not devoted much space to the proper behavior of masters toward servants, since dependency and servitude had been taken for granted. But the new nineteenth-century masters, especially those in middling circumstances, had become self-conscious about the relationship and needed advice on how to treat people who were supposed to be their inferiors in a culture that prized equality. “Servitude being established contrary to the natural rights of man,” declared one such manual in 1816, “it ought to be softened as much as possible, and servants made to feel their condition as little as may be.” Many middling masters were not all that sure of their own status, yet they had to deal with servants who may have not been all that different in origin. Hence they needed advice on how to talk to their servants, how to ask them to do tasks, and how to maintain a distance, without being unkind or contemptuous toward them.83
Controlling or even finding servants was difficult in this egalitarian atmosphere. With some Americans concluding that the practice of keeping servants was “highly anti-republican,” servants resisted the implications of the status. They refused to call their employers “master” or “mistress”; for many the term “boss,” derived from the Dutch word for master, became a euphemistic substitute. A minister in Maine favored the euphemism “help” applied to a domestic maid he admired because, unlike the word “servant,” it implied “a sense of independence and a hope of rising in the world”—something that the young woman and many other Americans were increasingly capable of doing.84
With the disappearance of indentured servitude, black slavery became more conspicuous and more peculiar than it had been in the past, and hired white servants resisted any identification with black slaves. A foreign traveler was startled to discover that a white female domestic refused to admit that she was a servant and that she lived in her master’s home. She was simply “help,” and she only “stayed” in the house. “I’d have you know, man,” she indignantly told this foreigner, “that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” White servants often demanded to sit at the table with their masters and mistresses, justifying their demand by claiming they lived in a free country, and that no freeborn American should be treated like a servant. William Cooper’s daughter-in-law could not believe the bold behavior of servants. She blamed it all on notions of “Yankee dignity and ideas of Liberty—which is insolence only.” Since early nineteenth-century Yankees were not at all eager to become someone’s flunky, Bostonian Harrison Gray Otis had to make do with a series of French-speaking Germans, who soon picked up New England ways and rebelled at being servants. In 1811 John Jay’s son, in a common complaint, reported that his uncle was having problems with his servants, who had “become more and more ungovernable.”85
Since the slave-ridden South scarcely needed hired servants, the servant problem was largely confined to the North. Desperate would-be masters in several Northern cities were eventually compelled to form organizations for the encouragement of faithful domestic servants. These organizations were especially designed to reduce the servants’ incessant mobility and eliminate the insidious practice of masters’ enticing someone else’s servant to join their household. Despite all these efforts, however, the problem of getting and keeping good servants persisted and would continue to bother many Americans throughout the nineteenth century.
Because of the servant problem, Americans in the 1790s began to build hotels as public residences. The New York City Hotel, built in 1794, contained 137 rooms and many public spaces. These hotels combined both eating and lodging, provided private sleeping quarters, prohibited tipping, and were often occupied by permanent boarders. Many found this arrangement cheaper than setting up a household with servants who were so hard to acquire and deal with. Foreigners found such hotels and boardinghouses to be peculiarly American institutions.86
BY THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY much of what remained of traditional eighteenth-century hierarchy was in shambles—broken by social and economic changes and justified by the republican commitment to equality. No longer were apprentices simply dependents within a family; they had become trainees within a business that was increasingly conducted outside the household. A master became less of a patriarch in the craft and more of an employer, retail merchant, or businessman. Artisans did less and less “bespoke” or made-to-order work for particular patrons and instead produced more and more ready-made goods for mass distribution to impersonal markets of consumers. Cabinetmakers began stocking warehouses with a variety of pieces of furniture for ready sale in a modern manner. Impersonal cash payments of wages replaced the older paternalistic relationship between masters and journeymen, which resulted in these free wage-earners moving about in increasing numbers. Six months, for example, was the average time of employment for journeymen in one Philadelphia cabinet shop between 1795 and 1803.87
Although both masters and journeymen tried to maintain the traditional fiction that they were bound together for the “good of the trade,” they increasingly saw themselves as employers and employees with different interests. Observers applauded the fact that apprentices, journeymen, and masters of each craft had marched together in the federal procession in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, yet some tensions and divergence of interests were already visible. By the 1780s and 1790s some journeymen in various crafts were organizing themselves against their masters’ organizations, banning their employers from their meetings, and declaring that “the interests of the journeymen are separate and in some respects opposite of those of their employers.”88
In the eighteenth century artisans had participated in strikes, but these were strikes of the whole craft against the community, a withholding of their services or goods until some communal restriction on their craft was removed. Now, however, the strikes were within the crafts themselves, pitting journeyman-employees against their master-employers until their wages or other working conditions of the employees were improved. In 1796 in Philadelphia journeyman cabinetmakers successfully struck for a wage hike, which came out to be about a dollar a day and included a provision for cost-of-living increases. To add to worker solidarity, journeymen in one craft and city began calling on journeymen in other crafts and cities to come together in a union to protect their mutual interests against hostile masters. Between 1786 and 1816 at least twelve major strikes by various journeyman craftsmen occurred—the first major strikes by employees against employers in American history.89
Despite these early incidents of clashing interests, however, the modern separation between employers and wage-earning employees came slowly. During the first several decades of the early Republic both masters and journeymen still tended to combine as artisans with similar concerns for the trade. At the outset most journeymen could look forward to becoming masters. In 1790 87 percent of the carpenters in Boston were masters, and most of the journeymen present in the city that year eventually became masters.90 In addition, masters and journeymen were brought together by their common status as tradesmen who worked with their hands. If anything, the contempt in which their labor had traditionally been held by the aristocratic gentry compelled their collaboration. So even those who differed from one other as greatly as did Walter Brewster, a young struggling shoemaker of Canterbury, Connecticut, and Christopher Leffingwell, a well-to-do manufacturer of Norwich, Connecticut, who owned several mills and shops and was the town’s largest employer, could join forces in the 1790s in a political movement on behalf of artisans against lawyers and other Connecticut gentry. Given their common lowliness as workers involved in manual trades, men like Brewster and Leffingwell were natural allies, and they understandably identified their “laboring interest” with “the general or common interest” of the whole state.91
In time, of course, the distinction between rich capitalist employers and poor wage-earning journeymen-employees would become more conspicuous. By 1825 in Boston, for example, 62 percent of all carpenters in the city had become property-less employees; and only about 10 percent of the journeymen in that year were able to rise to become masters.92 By the third decade of the nineteenth century most of the crafts had begun splitting into the modern class division between employers and employees. But in the 1790s large-scale manufacturers like Leffingwell and small craftsmen like Brewster still shared a common resentment of a genteel aristocratic world that had humiliated them from the beginning of time. For the same reason Joseph Williams, a mule-trader, took up the same political cause of artisans and manufacturers as Brewster and Leffingwell. Although Williams was the richest man in Norwich and as a merchant had interests that were different from those of artisans and manufacturers, he nevertheless identified with their loathing of the Federalist aristocracy of Connecticut.93
Despite all the apparent differences between wealthy mule-merchants, small shoemakers, and big manufacturers, socially and psychologically they were all middling sorts with occupations—sharply separated from gentlemen-aristocrats who did not seem to have to work for a living. In the eighteenth century, writes the premier historian of the emerging middle class in America, “the important hierarchal distinction was the one that set off the several elites from everyone else.” Thus in comparison with the great difference between the gentry and ordinary people, “differences between artisans and laborers were of no real consequence. The effect, needless to say,” says historian Stuart M. Blumin, “was to identify middling people much more closely with the bottom of the society than with the top.” What tied these disparate middling artisans and laborers together was their common involvement in manual labor. Mechanics and tradesmen considered “the farmers in the country” as “brethren,” for they “get their living as we do, by the labour of their hands.”94
In the decades following the Revolution these middling workers in the Northern parts of the country—farmers, artisans, laborers, and proto-businessmen of all sorts—released their pent-up egalitarian anger at all those “aristocrats” who had scorned and despised them as narrow-minded, parochial, and illiberal—and all because they had “not snored through four years at Princeton.” They urged each other to shed their earlier political apathy and “keep up the cry against Judges, Lawyers, Generals, Colonels, and all other designing men, and the day will be our own.” They demanded that they do their “utmost at election to prevent all men of talents, lawyers, rich men from being elected.”95 In the 1790s they organized themselves in Democratic-Republican Societies, and eventually they came to constitute the bulk of the Republican party in the North. By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, these ordinary working men had transformed what it meant to be a gentleman and a political leader.
Although Jefferson was an aristocratic slaveholder, it was his political genius to sense that the world of the early Republic ought to belong to people who lived by manual labor and not by their wits. Cities, he believed, were dangerous and promoted dissipation precisely because they were places, he said, where men sought “to live by their heads rather than their hands.”96 But Jefferson was only expressing the views of his many Northern followers. In the decades following the Revolution living by one’s head became equated with leisure, which was labeled idleness and subjected to the most scathing criticism—criticism that went well beyond anything experienced in England or Europe in these years.
Angry Democratic-Republicans, including Matthew Lyon, who moved to Kentucky and served as congressman there from 1803 to 1811, accused all those gentlemen who were “not . . . under the necessity of getting their bread by industry” of living off “the labour of the honest farmers and mechanics.” Those who “do not labor, but who enjoy in luxury, the fruits of labor,” these Republicans charged, had no right to “finally decide all acts and laws” as they had in the past. At the same time as the Northern Republicans assaulted the gentry’s idleness and capacity to govern, they emphasized and honored the significance and dignity of labor, which aristocrats traditionally had held in contempt.97
Having to work for a living became the identifying symbol for all those common middling sorts championed by Jefferson and the other Republican leaders. America’s political and social struggle, said William Manning, an uneducated New England farmer speaking as “a Labourer” on behalf of many Northern Republicans, was between the many and the few; it was based on “a Conceived Difference of Interest Between those that Labour for a Living and those that git a Living without Bodily Labour.” Those who did not have to do bodily work were “the merchant, phisition, lawyer & divine, the philosipher and school master, the Juditial & Executive Officers, & many others.” These “orders of men,” once they had attained their life of “ease & rest” that “at once creates a sense of superiority,” wrote Manning in phonetic prose that was real and not some gentleman’s satiric ploy, tended to “asotiate together and look down with two much contempt on those that labour.” Although “the hole of them do not amount to one eighth part of the people,” these gentry had the “spare time” and the “arts & skeems” to combine and consult with one another. They had the power to control the electorate and the government “in a veriaty of ways.” Some voters they flattered “by promise of favors, such as being customers to them, or helping them out of debt, or other difficultyes; or help them to a good bargain, or treet them or trust them, or lend them money, or even give them a little money”—anything or everything if only “they will vote for such & such a man.” Other voters the gentry threatened: “‘if you don’t vote for such & such a man,’ or ‘if you do’ and, ‘you shall pay me what you owe me,’ or ‘I will sew you’—’I will turne you out of my house’ or ‘off of my farm’—’I wont be your customer any longer.’ . . . All these things have bin practised & may be again.” This was how the “few” exerted influence over the many.
Those who “live without Labour” (the phrase that Manning used over and over to identify the gentry) managed the government and laws, making them as “numerous, intricate and as inexplicit as possible,” controlled the newspapers, making them as “costly as possible,” and manipulated the banks and credit, so as to make “money scarse,” especially since “the interests and incomes of the few lays chiefly in money at interest, rents, salaryes, and fees that are fixed on the nominal value of money.” In addition these “few,” by which he meant the Federalists of New England, were “always crying up the advantages of costly collages, national academyes & grammer schools, in order to make places for men to live without work, & so strengthen their party.” In fact, wrote Manning in 1798, “all the orders of men who live without Labour have got so monstrously crouded with numbers & made it fashanable to live & dress so high, that Labour & produce is scarse.” Manning ended his lengthy diatribe against all gentlemen of leisure by proposing to form “a Society of Labourers to be formed as near after the order of Cincinnati as the largeness of their numbers will admit of.”98
Some historians have thought of Manning as just a simple farmer in his little developing town of Billerica, Massachusetts. But in fact he was much more of a middling sort—an improver and a small-time entrepreneurial hustler, or what later would be called a petty businessman. He ran a tavern off and on, erected a saltpeter works making gunpowder during the Revolutionary War, helped build a canal, bought and sold land, constantly borrowed money, and urged the printing of money by state-chartered banks, seeking (not very successfully, it seems) every which way to better his and his family’s condition. By themselves Manning’s commercial activities may not be much, but multiply them many thousandfold throughout the society and we have the makings of an expanding commercial economy.
If anyone in the North was opposed to the developing market society, it was not the likes of Manning and other Northern Republicans; in fact, it was many of the traditional-minded Federalists who tried to stand in the way of the middling paper-money world that was taking over the society of the North. But the passions that divided Republicans and Federalists went beyond economic issues and political ideas. Manning and the Northern Republicans knew only too well the kind of society the Federalists favored—a hierarchical one held together by patronage and connections and dominated by a leisured few who used the mysteries of the law and their proprietary wealth to lord it over the many. The Democratic-Republicans feared and hated the English monarchy so much because it symbolized that kind of privileged aristocratic society.
MOCKING IDLENESS AND TURNING LABOR into a badge of honor made the South, with its leisured aristocracy supported by slavery, seem even more anomalous than it had been at the time of the Revolution, thus aggravating the growing sectional split in the country. Many Southern aristocrats began emphasizing their cavalier status in contrast to the money-grubbing northern Yankees. They were fond of saying that they were real gentlemen, a rare thing in America.
But even the Southern cavaliers were not entirely immune to the changing culture. Indeed, so prevalent did the scorn of gentlemanly leisure become that some Southern slaveholding aristocrats felt compelled to identify themselves with hard work and productive labor. As good Jeffersonian Republicans, some of these Southern planters contended that they, like the ordinary working people in the North, were involved in productive labor in contrast to all those Northern Federalist professionals, bankers, speculators, and moneyed men who never grew or made a single thing.
The Southerners could even respond to the marvelous manner in which Parson Mason Weems, author of the most popular biography of George Washington ever written, turned the aristocratic father of his country into someone who worked as diligently for a living as an ordinary mechanic. By conceiving of Washington as an industrious businessman, Weems spoke for the new rising generation of middling entrepreneurs and others eager to get ahead. He was determined, he said, to destroy the “notion, from the land of lies,” which had “taken too deep root among some, that ‘labour is a low-lived thing, fit for none but poor people and slaves! and that dress and pleasure are the only accomplishments for a gentleman!’” Weems urged all the young men who might be reading his book, “though humble thy birth, low thy fortune, and few thy friends, still think of Washington, and HOPE.”99
Of course, since more than anyone in the society the Southern slave-holding aristocrats depended on the labor of others, honoring themselves as workers was awkward, to say the least. In fact, once the planters invoked this celebration of productive labor, they discovered it could be readily turned against them. Professional lawyers in Virginia, struggling to gain control of the county courts from gentlemen-amateurs, accused the planter-aristocrats of being men raised to no “pursuit of honest industry.” All a member of this idle gentry had ever done, charged the lawyers, was “learned to dress, to dance, to drink, to smoke, to swear, to game; contracted a violent passion for the very rational, elegant and humane pleasures of the turf and the cock-pit, and was long distinguished for the best horses and game-cocks in the country.” Then again, the lawyers found themselves open to the same accusation: that they were unproductive parasites who lived off the cares and anxieties of others.100 Everyone in America, it seemed, was expected to be a worker or businessman—an expectation that was not matched to the same extent by any other country in the world.
THE CULTURE WAS CHANGING RADICALLY, especially in the North, and many Americans, older generations in particular, became frightened that the young Republic was caught up in a carousal of getting and spending. As Benjamin Rush lamented in 1809, the values of the Founders were being replaced by the “love of money.”101 Too many of the American people seemed absorbed in the selfish pursuit of their own interests. Americans, in what Federalist Joseph Dennie called this “penny-getting pound-hoarding world,” were always looking to bargain; they treated everything they owned, even their homes, as merchandise.102 English travelers were stunned to see Americans selling their landed estates in order to go into trade—the reverse of what Englishmen sought to do. Nothing was beyond the lure of cash. In the heart of Federalist New England an enterprising Yankee even saw a way to make money out of the gruesome Baltimore riots. Within weeks after the riots, this New Haven hustler established a museum exhibit of the “Cruelties of the Baltimore MOB” in “a group of WAX FIGURES as large as life” and charged twenty-five cents admission.103
Many, of course, even some Federalists, wanted to put the best face on what was happening. In his publications President Timothy Dwight of Yale, for example, was eager to counter foreign criticism of American materialism, and thus in his published comments, though not in his private notes, he always tried to emphasize the positive aspects of American behavior. Americans may have been restless adventurers, he wrote in his Travels in New England and New York, but they were also enterprising and versatile, “ready when disappointed in one kind of business to slide into another, and fitted to conduct the second, or even a third, or fourth, with much the same facility and success as if they had been bred to nothing else.”104
James Sullivan, a Maine-born lawyer who became Republican governor of Massachusetts in 1807, tried to justify all the scrambling for money, especially since most of the hustlers were members of his own party. In an extraordinary argument that marked the passing of the aristocratic passions of power and glory and the coming of the harmless and humdrum interests of ordinary money-making, Sullivan suggested that a man who sought only to acquire property “is not, perhaps, the good man for whom ‘one would dare to die’; but he is a character whom no one need to fear.” Indeed, by advancing his own particular interest in an innocuous piecemeal way, he even “advances the interest of the public.” Sullivan was celebrating the fact that the older aristocratic world of the great-souled and ambitious Hamiltons and Burrs, who were heroic but dangerous, was giving way to a new world of ordinary middling businessmen, who were mundane but safe. Ambition, which hitherto had been associated with the desire for aristocratic distinction, was becoming tamed and domesticated. Common people were now capable of ambition—the desire for improvement or gain—without necessarily being thought selfish or self-seeking, an endorsement of a peculiar kind of success that had extraordinary cultural power.105
Many others, however, were frightened and confused by what seemed to be a whole society being taken over by money-making and the pursuit of “soul-destroying dollars.” Too many were racing ahead in search of success without regard for the collective good or for those who failed and were left behind. Literati of varying tastes—ranging from Philip Freneau to Charles Brockden Brown to Washington Irving—filled the air with satirical complaints or hand-wringing analyses of what was happening. “This is a nation of peddlers and shopkeepers,” Brown complained of his countrymen in 1803. “Money engrosses all their passions and pursuits.” Such imaginative writers wanted nothing to do with men, as one Baltimore editor put it, “who are immersed in business, whose souls are exclusively devoted to the pursuit of riches, who suffer no ideas to intrude upon their speculations, or to disturb their calculations on exchange, insurance, and bank stock.”106 Although authors, professors, and poets were eager to be patriotic, many of them feared that a society so absorbed in business and money-making not only would contribute nothing to the arts and the finer things of life but would eventually fall apart in an orgy of selfishness.
At the outset of his presidency in 1802 Jefferson told the newly arrived immigrant Joseph Priestley that the theologian-scientist had become part of a grand experiment in freedom, an experiment in which Americans were “acting for all mankind.” Precisely because Americans enjoyed liberties denied the rest of mankind, said Jefferson, they had “the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members.” By the end of Jefferson’s administration in 1809 some Americans, mostly Federalists, thought the experiment was failing, that the degree of freedom left to individuals had already gone too far.107