By the end of the War of 1812 the United States was becoming, in the minds of its citizens, a nation to be reckoned with. Its population, approaching that of England, had grown rapidly, numbering now nearly eight and a half million people, including one and a half million African Americans. The population had more than doubled in the twenty-five years since the first census in 1790—and continued to grow faster than nearly every other nation in the Western world.
In 1815 the United States comprised eighteen states and five territories. To the original thirteen states had been added Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1802), and Louisiana (1812). The territories were Indiana (1809), Illinois (1809), Michigan (1805), Mississippi (1798), and Missouri (1812). Not only had the United States doubled in size, but its older eighteenth-century society, especially in the North, had been dramatically transformed. Americans, or at least the Northerners among them, were more egalitarian, more enterprising, and more selfconfident than they had been in 1789.
With the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons in France, Europe was experiencing a conservative reaction to decades of revolutionary upheaval, leaving America the only beacon of republicanism remaining in a thoroughly monarchical world. The Americans’ emotional connection with Britain was at last broken, and they had acquired a new sense of their own national character. Their perspective was no longer eastward across the Atlantic but westward across their own expansive continent. Anyone aged forty or older born in America had once been a monarchical subject of His Majesty George III; anyone younger than forty—and they comprised over 85 percent of the population—had been born a republican citizen of the youthful United States. The generation that had framed the Constitution and launched the new federal government was passing, and a new generation of Americans was emerging.
Of the forty-one members who attended the last meeting of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, only eleven still lived, and of these only two were still actively influential in national politics: President Madison, the last president to wear his hair in a queue, and Rufus King, senator from New York. Charles Pinckney, another Framer, had retired from the South Carolina legislature in 1814, but his political career was not over: he would successfully run for Congress in 1818. When Madison left the presidency in 1817, he and Secretary of State Monroe were the only members of his administration who had been in public life at the beginning of the new national government. The turnover in the Congress was even more dramatic. Nearly all the major congressional leaders in 1815 were under age forty, including Henry Clay, Langdon Cheves, John C. Calhoun, William Lowndes, and Felix Grundy.1
BY 1815 CHANGE WAS EVERYWHERE, but especially in the North. The War of 1812 cleared the air of much traditional thinking about commerce and made it much easier for Americans to come to a more honest appreciation of their society’s preoccupation with economic development and money-making, at least in the Northern states. By 1815 a new generation of leaders was much less apt to wring its hands over the obsessively acquisitive character of American society and was much more aware of the importance of domestic manufacturing and internal trade to the growing wealth of the nation.
With the embargo and the non-intercourse acts, far fewer manufactured imports from Britain were available, and this meant rising prices for such manufactured items. This in turn led both to a sudden increase in the number of patents and also to an inducement for more and more investors to shift their capital out of overseas shipping into domestic manufacturing. Before 1808 only fifteen cotton mills existed in the United States; by the end of 1809 eighty-seven mills had been added. Everywhere in the North, but especially in New England, small factories were springing up. “Our people have ‘cotton mill fever’ as it is called,” declared Moses Brown of Rhode Island in 1810. “Every place almost occupied with cotton mills. . . . Spinning yarn and making cloth is become our greatest business.”2
By inviting the English immigrant Samuel Slater to Rhode Island in 1790, Brown himself had contributed to this explosion of mills. He helped Slater use his knowledge of cotton textile machinery that he had smuggled out of England to set up a factory. By 1794 Slater had built a large part of the mill that survives today in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. By 1795 he built a second mill, and between 1803 and 1807 he and his associates started twelve more. Of all the mills in existence in the United States in 1808, nearly half belonged to Slater and his associates or to one of his former employees. Between 1808 and 1812 the embargo and the war prompted the creation of thirty-six cotton mills and forty-one woolen mills in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. “There is probably more business done here, than at any other factory in America,” declared a young minister describing Slatersville, Rhode Island, in 1812. “On a spot where a few years ago there was but two or three houses, there is a village of 64 families and 500 people in some way employed about the factory.”3
The growth of manufacturing was not confined to New England. By 1814 Tench Coxe estimated that 243 cotton mills operated within fifteen states. Pennsylvania alone had 64. By 1820 well over a quarter of the labor force in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States was working in small factories, making everything from shoes to textiles. But such statistics are misleading; not only was at least 30 percent of the manufacturing labor force in 1820 composed of women and children, but this factory work did not include the extraordinary amount of manufacturing taking place in rural family households.
Unlike Britain and Europe, this American rural manufacturing was not usually the result of mercantile capitalists subcontracting work to impoverished cottagers and landless laborers in so-called putting-out systems; it was more often the consequence of ongoing farm families becoming part-time manufacturers and entrepreneurs in order to better themselves by making some extra money. Even farmers who were not growing crops for export abroad were nonetheless scrambling to create goods to exchange in local markets—working with their wives and children spinning cloth or weaving hats, dressing deer skins and beaver pelts, making hoops and barrels, distilling whiskey or cider, and fabricating whatever they might sell to local stores. In 1809 an English-born leather dresser, Talmadge Edwards, who had migrated to America in 1770, hired country girls to come to his tannery in upstate New York to cut out gloves, which Edwards then sent to farmers’ wives for sewing and finishing. By 1810 he discovered he had a market for his gloves among the households in the Albany area. From these modest beginnings grew the flourishing glove and mitten industry of the United States.
In 1810 90 percent of the $ 42 million total textile production of the nation came from family households. As early as the 1790s Henry Wansey, a British visitor, had noted that in both Massachusetts and New Jersey housewives in every farming household kept their families busy carding and spinning woolen and linen cloth “in the evenings and when they are not in the fields.” Even earlier the French visitor Brissot de Warville had found “almost all” the households of Worcester, Massachusetts, “inhabited by men who are both cultivators and artisans; one is a tanner, another a shoemaker, another sells goods; but all are farmers.” Manufactures, it was said, were “rising in all their varied form in every direction, and pursued with an eye to profit in almost every farm house in the United States.” By 1809 households in the little town of Franklin, Massachusetts, were producing six thousand straw hats a year for sale in Boston and Providence.4
In many Northern agricultural towns people seemed to be doing everything but farming. By 1815 even the tiny town of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, with a population of only five hundred persons, had several dozen artisans and manufacturing shops, including three saddlers, three hatters, four blacksmiths, four weavers, six boot and shoe makers, three cabinet makers, one baker, one apothecary, two wagon makers, two tanneries, one wool-carding-machine maker, two wool-carding machinists, one wool-spinning machinist, one flax spinner, and one nail factory. Within a six-mile radius of this little Ohio town were nine merchant mills, two gristmills, twelve sawmills, one paper mill, one woolen factory, and two fulling mills.5
With so much manufacturing and so many internal exchanges going on, the Republican leaders had to adjust their ideas of political economy. As early as 1799 Congressman Albert Gallatin had recognized that America had become commercially and socially different from the former mother country. In Britain, he told the Congress, the different trades and occupations were “so well distinguished that a merchant and a farmer are rarely combined in the same person; a merchant is a merchant, and nothing but a merchant; a manufacturer is only a manufacturer; a farmer is merely a farmer; but this is not the case in this country.” In America, by contrast, “the different professions and traders are blended together in the same person; the same man being frequently a farmer and a merchant and perhaps a manufacturer.”
The consequence, said Gallatin, was that the United States was no longer the exclusively agricultural nation that Jefferson idealized. Nearly everyone was a farmer, and something else besides. “Go into the interior of the country,” he said, “and you will scarcely find a farmer who is not, in some degree, a trader. In a grazing part of the country, you will find them buying and selling cattle; in other parts you will find them distillers, tanners, or brick-makers. So that, from one end of the United States to the other, the people are generally traders.”6
By the end of the War of 1812 even Jefferson realized that circumstances had radically changed since he had expressed his hostility toward manufacturing in his Notes on the State of Virginia . Who in 1785, he asked in January 1816, could have foreseen the “rapid depravity” into which Europe would sink in the subsequent decades? Who could have imagined that two such distinguished nations as Britain and France would defy “those moral laws established by the Author of nature between nation and nation” and “would cover the earth and sea with robberies and piracies”? Americans, he said, had experienced what in 1785 they had not believed possible, “that there exists both profligacy and power enough to exclude us from the field of interchange with other nations: that to be independent for the comforts of life we must fabricate them for ourselves. We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist.” Anyone opposed to domestic manufacturing, Jefferson now concluded, must be willing either to be reduced to a dependency on Great Britain or “to be clothed in skins, and to live like wild beasts in dens and caverns.”
Since Jefferson wanted neither alternative, he had to concede “that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort.” He vowed he would in the future purchase homemade goods and thereby “wrest that weapon of distress from the hand which has wielded it.” Still, he hoped that Americans would manufacture only enough goods to meet their domestic demand and would not end up, like England, creating urban factories into which their surplus labor would be drawn.7
Indeed, so averse were Americans to English-style urban factories that much of the textile production remained scattered among farm families. Slater’s mills not only employed whole families, including young children, but confined the work to the spinning of yarn; the yarn was then “put out” to be woven by hand-weavers in the homes of families throughout the area. Nineteen out of twenty Americans continued to live in rural places, that is, places smaller than twenty-five hundred persons. In the two decades between 1800 and 1820 the percentage of the labor force employed in agriculture actually increased from 89. 5 percent to 91.7 percent.8
By 1820 sixty-one urban places dotted the map, but only five were cities with populations over twenty-five thousand—New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans. Altogether, these urban places held less than 7 percent of the total American population. By contrast, En gland in 1821 had well over a third of its population in cities, and more than 20 percent lived in cities larger than twenty thousand. America contained nothing resembling London with its million and a quarter people and had no burgeoning industrial cities like Leeds or Manchester.
By 1815 the United States thus remained a predominantly rural, agricultural society, on the surface not all that different from the society of the eighteenth century. Yet beneath that surface much had changed. The early Republic may have been still overwhelmingly rural, still overwhelmingly agricultural, but it was also now overwhelmingly commercial, perhaps, in the North at least, the most thoroughly commercialized society in the world. The Americans’ desire to trade was “a passion as unconquerable as any with which nature has endowed us,” Henry Clay told the House of Representatives in 1812. “You may attempt to regulate—you cannot destroy it.”9
America’s intense involvement in overseas commerce and the carrying trade between 1792 and 1805—because of the European wars—tended to mask what was happening commercially within the United States itself. While Americans were trading with places all over the world, they were also trading with one another and creating a continental marketplace. Suddenly, the vision some had had in the aftermath of Independence that Americans constituted “a world within ourselves, sufficient to produce whatever can contribute to the necessities and even the superfluities of life,” was being realized.10
The rapid development of domestic trade created the heightened demand almost everywhere for internal improvements—new roads, new canals, new ferries, new bridges—anything that would help increase the speed and lower the cost of the movement of goods within the country, and, as John C. Calhoun said in 1817, in a common opinion, help “bind the republic together.” All this worked to convince Americans, as the governor of Pennsylvania declared in 1811, that “foreign commerce is a good but of a secondary nature, and that happiness and prosperity must be sought for within the limits of our own country.” This growing belief that domestic commerce of the United States was “incalculably more valuable” than its foreign commerce and that “the home market for productions of the earth and manufactures is of more importance than all foreign ones” represented a momentous reversal of traditional thinking.11
Americans had always carried on an extraordinary amount of internal trade with one another, but rarely had they appreciated its worth to their society. They had tended to believe that such domestic trade—say, between Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia—had no real value unless goods were further shipped outside of the country. Inland trade by itself, they thought, could never increase a community’s aggregate wealth; it could only move it about. The “meer handling of Goods one to another, no more increases any wealth in the Province, than Persons at a Fire, increase the Water in a Pail, by passing it thro’ twenty or Forty hands.” Such passing of wealth around the community from hand to hand, William Smith of New York had declared in 1750, “tho’ it may enrich an Individual,” meant that “others must be poorer, in an exact proportion to his Gains; but the Collective Body of the People not at all.”12
Because of this kind of traditional thinking, Americans had tended to attach a special importance to overseas commerce. They had believed that a society could increase its aggregate wealth only by selling more beyond its borders than it bought, that is, by having a favorable balance of foreign trade. As one American put it in 1786, “Only exports make a country rich.”13 With such zero-sum mercantilist assumptions, Americans had not extended much respectability to internal traders and retail shopkeepers. They certainly had not granted such traders and shopkeepers the highly regarded status, or the right to claim the title, of “merchant,” which belonged exclusively to those who exported goods abroad and thus presumably earned real wealth for the society.
By the early nineteenth century, however, anyone who was involved in trade of any sort, even retail shopkeepers, was claiming the title of “merchant.” Instead of defining “commerce” as Montesquieu had—”the exportation and importation of merchandise with a view to the advantage of the state”—many Americans, at least in the North, now equated “commerce” with all the exchanges taking place within the country itself, exchanges in which not only both parties always gained but the society did as well. “There is no word in the English language that more deceives a people than the word commerce,” wrote Hezekiah Niles in his Weekly Register in 1814. People everywhere “associate with it an idea of great ships, passing to all countries—whereas the rich commerce of every community is its internal; a communication of one part with other parts of the same. . . . In the United States, (were we at peace) our foreign trade would hardly exceed a fortieth or fiftieth part of the whole commerce of the people.”14
Niles, whose Register was America’s first national news magazine, was one of the leaders in turning Americans inward. During the War of 1812 he called for an end to all foreign influence and the development of domestic manufacturing and trade. The war, he said, was beneficial to America because it will “bring about a blessed union of the people, in directing them to look AT HOME for all they desire.”15
Of course, not everyone accepted the new thinking. “Perhaps the most controversial subject of political economy,” declared DeWitt Clinton in 1814, “is whether the home or foreign commerce is most productive of national wealth.” The Southern planters with their need to market their staples abroad could never acknowledge the superiority of internal trade.16
BY THE SECOND DECADE of the nineteenth century the Republicans had won such an overwhelming victory that the Federalist “aristocrats” no longer seemed to matter either politically or socially. The result was that the middling people in the North, who were participating in all the buying and selling and made up the bulk of the Northern Jeffersonian Republicans, never developed the same acute self-consciousness of being “middling” as their counterparts in England. There the aristocracy was much more firmly established and less open to easy entry. Wealthy tradesmen and businessmen and other aspiring middling sorts usually had to wait a generation or more and then acquire land before they could move up into the ranks of the gentry. Consequently, in England the term “middle class” took on a much more literal meaning than it did in America: it came to describe that stratum of people who lay between the dominant aristocracy and the working class and were self-consciously distinguished from each of the extremes.
But by the second decade of the nineteenth century in America, in the North at least, the ambitious, go-getting middling sorts were collapsing into themselves all levels of income and all social ranks and had come to dominate American culture to a degree that the middle class in England never achieved. It was as Franklin in the 1780s had predicted: “the almost general mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America” had obliged “its people to follow some business for subsistence,” turning America into “the land of labour.”17 The growing numbers of commercial farmers, mechanics, clerks, teachers, businessmen, and industrious, self-trained would-be professionals could scarcely think of themselves as the “middle” of anything; they considered themselves to be the whole nation and as a consequence gained a powerful moral hegemony over the society, especially in the North.
When Noah Webster later came to define “gentleman” in his Dictionary, he saw it simply as a courtesy title, of general address, applied most appropriately to “men of education and good breeding, of every occupation.” “Of every occupation”—that was the key to the changes taking place. By the early decades of the nineteenth century many lawyers could no longer think of themselves merely as gentlemen who sometimes practiced some law. Law, at least for those who did not use it merely as a stepping-stone to politics, was becoming a technical and specialized profession that wholly occupied the person engaged in it, making it no different really from the occupations of artisans and tradesmen. Much to the chagrin of aristocratic Federalists, not just law but all the professions had become income-producing occupations. “Our Lawyers are mere lawyers, our physicians are mere physicians, our divines are mere divines,” complained John Sylvester John Gardiner, perhaps Boston’s most distinguished man of letters in the first decade of the nineteenth century. “Everything smells of the shop, and you will, in a few minutes conversation, infallibly detect a man’s profession.”18
The distinction between gentlemen and commoners did not entirely disappear, but it was buffeted and further blurred. When working with one’s head became no different from working with one’s hands, then the distinction between gentlemen and commoners became less and less meaningful. As early as 1802 the buyer of a church pew in a New England meetinghouse called himself a “gentleman,” but the seller labeled him a “blacksmith.” Visiting foreigners were amazed to find so many adult white males, including draymen, butchers’ boys, and canal workers, being addressed as gentlemen. Outraged Federalists tried to make fun of the vulgar for claiming to be equal to gentlemen and men of education. But such satire rang hollow when no one felt embarrassed over such claims.
Since the 1790s American leaders had yearned to make their society more homogeneous, but they had hoped that that homogeneity would come from raising ordinary people to their level of gentility and enlightenment. Instead, ordinary folk were collapsing traditional social differences and were bringing the aristocracy down to their level. The many academies and colleges that were sprouting up everywhere, especially in the North, were not enlightening the society as expected; instead, they were annually producing “multitudes of half-educated candidates for public confidence and honor,” which accounted for so many trying “to crowd themselves into the learned professions.”19 Many foreigners were surprised to discover that the social and cultural distinctions common to the nations of Europe seemed in America, as Tocqueville later put it, “to have melted into a middle class.”20 Although the upper ranks of Americans may have lacked the elegant manners and refined courtesy of the European aristocracy, ordinary Americans were far less vulgar and uncultivated than their European counterparts.
Crossing the Allegheny Mountains westward in 1815, the English immigrant Morris Birkbeck was struck by “the urbanity and civilization that prevail in situations remote from large cities.” Americans, said Birkbeck, “are strangers to rural simplicity: the embarrassed air of an awkward rustic, so frequent in England, is rarely seen in the United States.” Birkbeck attributed the social homogeneity of the Americans to “the effects of political equality, the consciousness of which accompanies all their intercourse, and may be supposed to operate most powerfully on the manners of the lowest class.” It was as if the sharp distinction between politeness and vulgarity that characterized European society had in America somehow become mingled and made into one—creating, said an unhappy James Fenimore Cooper, the “fussy pretensions” of the “genteel vulgar” who got their manners “second hand, as the traditions of fashion, or perhaps the pages of a novel.”21
American society, or at least the Northern part of American society, was coming more and more to resemble what Franklin and Crèvecoeur had imagined in the 1780s, a society that seemed to lack both an aristocracy and a lower class. “Patrician and plebeian orders are unknown . . .,” wrote the Federalist-turned-Republican Charles Ingersoll in 1810, drawing out the logic of what had been conventional American wisdom since the mid-eighteenth century. “Luxury has not yet corrupted the rich, nor is there any of that want, which classifies the poor. There is no populace. All are people. What in other countries is called the populace, a compost heap, whence germinate mobs, beggars, and tyrants, is not to be found in the towns; and there is no peasantry in the country. Were it not for the slaves of the south,” wrote Ingersoll, “there would be one rank.”22
The exception is jarring, to say the least, but no more jarring than Ingersoll’s larger generalization. By modern standards his judgment that America had become classless and composed of one rank seems absurd. From today’s perspective, the distinctions of early nineteenth-century society are vivid, not only those between free and enslaved, white and black, male and female, but also those between rich and poor, educated and barely literate. Despite the celebration of commerce, the many participants in business may have failed as often as they succeeded. People talked about being “busted” or of “going to smash”: one out of five householders could expect to become insolvent at least once.23 Yet understanding the wonder and the astonishment of observers like Ingersoll requires taking seriously the ways in which the Northern society of the early Republic concocted the myth of a new middle-class society that celebrated its homogeneous egalitarian character.
To be sure, there were great discrepancies of wealth in the early Republic. The South had its great slaveholding planters while most farmers had few or no slaves. Even in the North wealth was far more unequally distributed in the decades following the Revolution than it had been before.24Yet not only did Republican political leaders continue to hold out the vision of an egalitarian society of small producers, but many Northerners felt they were in fact living in a more egalitarian society; and in a strange way they were correct. After all, wealth, compared to birth, breeding, ethnicity, family heritage, gentility, even education, is the least humiliating means by which one person can claim superiority over another; and it is the one most easily matched or overcome by exertion.
From this point of view the popular myth of equality in the early Republic was based on a substantial reality—but a psychological more than an economic reality. British traveler John Melish thought that most Northern states in 1806 resembled Connecticut, where, he said, “there is no feudal system, and no law of primogeniture; hence there are no overgrown estates on one hand, and few of those employed in agriculture are depressed by poverty on the other.” Despite this celebration of Connecticut’s equality, however, Melish went on to say that the farms in the state were very unequal in size, ranging “generally from 50 to 5000 acres.”
Still, Melish emphasized, Americans felt remarkably equal to one another. They “have a spirit of independence, and will brook no superiority. Every man is conscious of his own political importance, and will suffer none to treat him with disrespect. Nor is this disposition confined to one rank; it pervades the whole and is probably the best guarantee for the continuance of the liberty and independence of the country.”25
IN ORDER TO JUSTIFY and legitimate their claim to be all the people, these egalitarian-minded middling sorts needed, above all, to link themselves to the greatest event in their young history, the Revolution. Since most of the political elite who had led the Revolution were gentlemen-aristocrats, and slaveholding aristocrats at that, they had little to offer the burgeoning groups of enterprising artisans and businessmen as models for emulation or justification. If the middling artisans and entrepreneurs who were coming to dominate Northern American culture in the early nineteenth century were to find among the Revolutionary Founders a hero they could relate to, only Benjamin Franklin, the former printer who had risen from the most obscure origins to worldly success, could fulfill their needs. Only Franklin could justify the release of their ambition.
Franklin died in 1790, and his Autobiography was not published until 1794. Between that year and 1828 twenty-two editions were published. After 1798 editors began adding the Poor Richard essays, and especially The Way to Wealth, to editions of the Autobiography . Franklin’s life became an inspiration to countless young men eager to make it in the world of business. Reading Franklin’s life and writings at age eighteen, Silas Felton of Marlborough, Massachusetts, was encouraged to change his life. Since, as he said in his memoir written in 1802 at age twenty-six, “Nature never formed me to follow an Agricultural Life,” he did not pursue his father’s farming career but instead turned to teaching and then to storekeeping, at which he was successful. He was interested in politics and was an insatiable reader, devouring not only newspapers and “many volumes . . . that contained true genuine Republicanism” but also Franklin’s writings and indeed everything he could lay his hands on that would improve his mind and refine his manners—all of which he dutifully listed in his memoir. Like Franklin founding his Junto for ambitious artisans in early Philadelphia, Felton in 1802 helped to organize the Society of Social Enquirers in Marlborough, a group of twelve middling men who met monthly in order to improve themselves and their society. The group debated the amount of wealth people needed and the importance of credit in the economy; it devised a plan for reforming the town’s schools, and some of the society served on the local school committee. Nothing was more important to these middling men than “a good education.”
Felton was a good Jeffersonian Republican. He harbored a deep resentment toward the local “priests” and “other Aristocrats,” that is, the Federalist Calvinist clergy and their lay supporters. These Federalists tried to keep people like him down and were always “discouraging Learning, among the lower Class of people.” By “lower class” he meant that large deferential majority who had lived too long under patriarchal rule. The “bigoted” and “sour-hearted” priests preached pessimistic sermons about depravity and sin and sought to destroy the kind of youthful and middling ambition that he and countless others in the North were expressing.26
Although Felton never became very rich or famous, he did eventually become a substantial member of his modest community—a town clerk, a selectman, a justice of the peace, and a representative to the General Court for three terms. He epitomized, in other words, the kind of self-improving sort who hated the Federalists for “conspiring against reason and republicanism,” and in reaction he celebrated the dynamic and middling Northern society composed of “probably the happiest people upon the earth.”27
Other Franklin readers were even more successful. In 1810 sixteen-year-old James Harper left his father’s farm on Long Island for New York City after reading Franklin’s Autobiography . Eventually he founded one of the most successful publishing firms in the country and became mayor of New York. Chauncey Jerome was another success story. The son of a blacksmith, he became a prosperous clockmaker in New Haven, with three hundred men in his employ, and mayor of the city; indeed, he was one of those enterprising individuals who turned Connecticut into the clockmaking center of the world. In his memoir he marveled at how far he had risen and could not help describing his arrival in New Haven in 1812 as a nineteen-year-old just as Franklin had, wandering alone “about the streets early one morning with a bundle of clothes and some bread and cheese in my hands.”28
Franklin emerged for businessmen everywhere as the perfect model of the “self-made man,” struggling by himself to rise from humble origins in order to achieve wealth and respectability. Haughty Federalists could only shake their heads in disgust at all those vulgar sorts who had come to believe “that there was no other road to the temple of Riches, except that which runs through—Dr. Franklin’s works.”29
The “self-made man” became such a familiar symbol for Americans that its original novelty has been lost.30 Of course, there had always been social mobility in Western society, at some times and in some places more than others. Eighteenth-century Americans had always experienced a good deal of it. But this social mobility in the past generally had been a mobility of a peculiar sort, an often sponsored mobility in which the patronized individual acquired the attributes of the social status to which he aspired while at the same time he tried to forget and disguise the lowly sources from whence he had come. As indicated by the pejorative terms—“upstarts,” “arrivistes,” “parvenus”—used to disparage those participants unable to hide their rise, social mobility traditionally had not been something to be proud of. Hamilton certainly did not brag about his obscure background; indeed, most of the Founders did not like to talk about their humble origins. But by the nineteenth century many of those new middling sorts who had risen were boasting of their lowly beginnings in imitation of Franklin. Washington Irving mocked the “outrageous extravagance” of the manners and clothes of the wife of a nouveau riche Boston tradesman. Yet Irving could not help admiring her lack of “foolish pride respecting her origins”; instead of being embarrassed by her background, she took “great pleasure in telling how they first entered Boston in Pedlars trim.”31
Early nineteenth-century England was experiencing extensive social mobility, but it was nothing compared to the rate of upward mobility among contemporary Americans. Already, independent mobile men were bragging of their humble origins and their lack of both polish and a gentleman’s education. They had made it, they said, on their own, without family influence, without patronage, and without going to Harvard or Princeton or indeed any college at all. For many Americans the ability to make and display money now became the only proper democratic means for distinguishing one man from another.
Of course, most Federalists were outraged by these attempts to make wealth the sole criterion of social distinction. The socially established families of Philadelphia looked down upon the nouveau riche businessman John Swanwick even though he was one of the wealthiest men of the city; they regarded him as “our Lilliputian, [who] with his dollars, gets access where without them he would not be suffered to appear.”32 Catharine Maria Sedgwick, author and daughter of an esteemed Federalist family, spoke for all of the old aristocracy when she said of the emerging nineteenth-century money-based hierarchy, “wealth, you know, is the grand leveling principle.”33
Some of the ambitious middling sorts declared that they did not need formal educational institutions to learn about the world and get ahead. Like William Findley, they “prefer[red] common sense and common usage” to pompous theories and pretentious words picked up in college classrooms. Through newspapers, almanacs, tracts, chapbooks, periodicals, lectures, novels, and other media, those who were eager to improve themselves sought to obtain smatterings of knowledge about things that previously had been the exclusive property of college-educated elites—learning to write legibly, for example. Niles’ Weekly Register became a regular source of information for these striving middling people, and no one was a more devoted subscriber than William Findley. Near the end of Findley’s life the personal property he had accumulated was very modest, appraised at less than five hundred dollars; but it contained a large number of books, including Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, with which he had educated himself.34
Others, however, like Jedediah Peck, who had begun their assaults on the aristocracy by ridiculing fancy book-learning and genteel manners, ultimately accepted the need for educational institutions. Peck, for example, eventually became the father of the common school system of New York. In the end many of the new middling sorts did not repudiate the politeness and learning of the Enlightenment; instead they popularized and vulgarized that politeness and learning and turned both into respectability. Reacting to the Federalists’ many snubs and jeers, many of the middling people began seeking to acquire some of the refinement of the aristocracy, to obtain what the leading historian of this process has nicely called “vernacular gentility.” Americans socially and culturally set about constructing what one observer astutely noted was “a most uncommon union of qualities not easily kept together—simplicity and refinement”—the very qualities that came to constitute the nineteenth-century middle class.35
In seeking to become genteel, many of these wealthy middling sorts came to resemble the “molatto gentleman” that Benjamin Franklin had mocked—a “new Gentleman, or rather a half Gentleman, or Mungrel, an unnatural Compound of earth and Brass like the Feet of Nebuchad-nezzar’s Image.” These were the people who bought the increasing numbers of books and manuals to teach themselves manners and politeness, including various abridged editions of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son . Daniel Drake, a famous physician in the West, recalled growing up in late eighteenth-century Kentucky, where books were scarce, reading Chesterfield’s Letters, which “fell in mightily close with my tastes, and not less with those of father and mother, who cherished as high and pure an idea of duty of good breeding as any people on earth.”36 But, as one young woman recognized, in the struggles of those seeking to become refined “an easy unassuming politeness . . . is not the acquirement of a day.”37 For some of these new middlebrow Americans, buying a tea service or placing a piano in their parlor came to be the mark of being cultivated and genteel. Out of these efforts was born the middle-class Victorianism of the nineteenth century.
Honor—that aristocratic sense of reputation—decreased in significance for the new middle-class society. Except for the South and the military, which retained many aristocratic values, the concept of honor was attacked as monarchical and anti-republican. As honor came under assault, so too did dueling, which was the special means by which gentlemen protected their honor. Although Aaron Burr’s killing of Alexander Hamilton in 1804 in a duel led to much condemnation of the practice, it was the spread of egalitarian sentiments that most effectively undermined it. When even servants began challenging others to duels, many gentlemen realized that the code of honor had lost its cachet.
As Tocqueville later pointed out, Americans, in the North at least, came to replace aristocratic honor with middle-class morality. Virtue lost much of the rational and stoical quality befitting the antique heroes the Revolutionary leaders had emulated. Temperance—that self-control of the passions so valued by the ancients and one of Cicero’s four cardinal virtues—became mainly identified with the elimination of popular drunkenness—”a good cause,” declared the Franklin Society for the Suppression of Intemperance in 1814, in which “perseverance and assiduity seldom fail of securing the denied object.” The hustling entrepreneur Parson Weems labeled a republic “the best government for morals,” by which he mainly meant “the best remedy under heaven against national intemperance”; it “imparts a joy that loathes the thought of drunkenness.”38
If indeed the Americans had become one homogeneous people and the people as a single estate were all there was, then many Americans now became much more willing than they had been in 1789 to label their government a “democracy.” At the time of the Revolution, “democrat” had been a pejorative term that conservatives leveled at those who wanted to give too much power to the people; indeed, Federalists identified democracy with mobocracy, or, as Gouverneur Morris said, “no government at all.” “Simple democracy,” declared a Federalist editor in 1804, was even more abhorrent than “simple monarchy.” Even Madison in Federalist No. 10 had said that pure democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they been violent in their deaths.”39
But increasingly in the years following the Revolution the Republicans and other popular groups, especially in the North, began turning the once derogatory terms “democracy” and “democrat” into emblems of pride. Even in the early 1790s some contended that “the words Republican and Democratic are synonymous” and claimed that anyone who “is not a Democrat is an aristocrat or a monocrat.”40 The Democratic-Republican Societies disappeared, but their name lingered on; and soon many of the Northern Republicans began labeling their party the Democratic-Republican party. Early in the first decade of the nineteenth century even neutral observers were casually referring to the Republicans as the “Dems” or the “Democrats.”41
With these Democrats regarding themselves as the nation, it was not long before people began to challenge the traditional culture’s aversion to the term “democracy.” “The government adopted here is a DEMOCRACY,” boasted the populist Baptist Elias Smith in 1809. “It is well for us to understand this word, so much ridiculed by the international enemies of our beloved country. The word DEMOCRACY is formed of two Greek words, one signifies the people, and the other the government which is in the people. . . . My Friends, let us never be ashamed of DEMOCRACY!”42
In 1816 many members of Congress discovered just how powerful the people in this democracy could be. In March of that year Congress passed a Compensation Act, which raised the pay of congressmen from six dollars per diem to a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year. The vote in the House was eighty-one to sixty-seven, and in the Senate, twenty-one to eleven—with both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans on both sides of the vote. Congress had not received a raise since 1789 and had repeatedly complained that the per diem set at the beginning of the government was no longer adequate. Robert Wright, a Maryland congressman and former governor of the state, argued in the House that in the old days the representatives “lived like gentlemen, and enjoyed a glass of generous wine, which cannot be afforded at this time for the present compensation.”43
Some analysts figured out that the new salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year came out to be about twelve dollars a day: Congress had thus doubled its pay. The press, both Federalist and Democratic-Republican, picked up on the issue and fanned the passions of people to heights rarely seen. Kentucky congressman Richard M. Johnson declared that “the poor compensation bill excited more discontent” than any other bill or event in the history of the young Republic—more “than the alien or sedition laws, the quasi war with France, the internal taxes of 1798, the embargo, the late war with Great Britain, the Treaty of Ghent, or any other one measure of the Government.” Jefferson agreed. “There has never been an instance before of so unanimous an opinion of the people,” he observed, “and that through every State in the Union.”44 If he had still been president, he said, he might have vetoed the bill. Earlier he had pointed out that the “drudgery” of office and the bare “subsistence” provided for officeholders in a republic were “a wise & necessary precaution against the degeneracy of the public servants.” Such parsimonious views, which were actually aristocratic in nature, had inevitably increased Jefferson’s popularity among Republican plebeians who resented paying taxes to pay for what seemed to be the high salaries of their public officials.45
Now the people had a chance to make their resentment felt. Throughout the country public meetings composed of both political parties denounced the law that had raised the salaries of congressmen. Several state legislatures along with Fourth of July orators bitterly condemned it. Glasses were raised in criticism; the compensation law, noted one New York editor, was “toasted until it is black.” In Georgia opponents even burned the members of Congress in effigy.46
Critics of the raise were especially incensed at Congressman Wright’s indiscreet comment about not being able to enjoy a good glass of wine and cited it over and over to great effect. Popular outrage was unprecedented, and the reputation of Congress was severely tarnished. Even congressmen who had voted against the law had to promise humbly to work to repeal it and to return the salary they had already received. In the fall elections of 1816 nearly 70 percent of the Fourteenth Congress was not returned to the Fifteenth Congress. In January 1817 a chastened lame-duck Fourteenth Congress met to debate the issue of exactly what representation meant, and by and large it determined that the people had every right to instruct their congressmen. At this session, the last of his long career as a congressman, William Findley spoke passionately about the need to pay the people’s representatives adequately. Ordinary middling people like him, who “have to support their families by their industry in any occupation,” needed more than just enough money to cover their expenses. “Agreeable to all the principles of our government,” said Findley, in summing up his view of representation that he had promoted from the beginning of his career, “all classes, and all interests ought to be represented in Congress. . . . The wages might be made so low that but one class, viz.: the wealthy who could afford the expense, and did not depend on their own personal industry would serve. But this,” he said, in defense of the middling world he had helped create, “would change the nature of our government.”47 Despite Findley’s plea for a decent salary, Congress at the end of the session repealed the Compensation Act but left it to the next Congress to set the members’ pay, which it eventually did at eight dollars a day.
The issue marked an important point of transformation in American politics. It was “productive of good,” declared the Republican National Intelligencer, “in so far as it has been the means of teaching the Representatives of the people a lesson of accountability, which will not be soon forgotten.”48 Congress was not to be a deliberative body set apart from the people; the representatives were not to stand above the people making impartial judgments as wise umpires in order to promote some abstract good. It was as the comte de Volney had said in his radical book, Ruins, which so enthralled Jefferson: Just as the enlightened wanted no mediators between themselves and God—no priests—so too did good republicans want no mediators between themselves and their rulers. Instead, congressmen and other officials were to be simply temporary agents of those who elected them, and they were bound to adhere as closely as possible to the will of their constituents.49
A new era in popular democratic politics had clearly emerged, and new modern politicians like Martin Van Buren realized that they could no longer rely on the elitist ideas of the Founders. For all of their greatness, those Founders, Van Buren said, had possessed many fears, fears of democracy that popular American experience since 1800 had laid to rest.
IN THIS DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY heroic individuals, like the Founders, no longer mattered as much as they had in the past. What counted was the mass of ordinary people, with the term “mass” being used positively for the first time in reference to “almost innumerable wills” acting to create a process that no one of them clearly intended. No country in history ever resembled the United States “in the points of greatness, complexity, and the number of its relations,” declared the North American Review in 1816. It was a country so caught up in shifting currents, “rapid, powerful, accumulated in the mass, and uncertain in . . . direction,” that it was “scarcely possible for the mind to fix upon any . . . ground of policy or just calculation” of what to do. America was in the hands of “Providence,” and this traditional religious term now became identified with “progress” and with the natural principles of society created by the mass of busy people following their individual desires free from all sorts of artificial restraints, especially those imposed by government.50
As people became more confident that the social process was naturally progressive, earlier talk of the successive stages of social development tended to fall away, and people became less and less worried about entering the advanced commercial stage of the civilizing process. America was unique, declared Republican Nathaniel Cogswell in 1808. It “possesses all the excellencies of the ancient and modern Republics, without their faults,” said Cogswell, whom the Federalists tried to mock as “one of Mr. Jefferson’s idolators” and “proselytes to democracy.” “It possesses, if I may so express myself, the seeds of eternal duration.” America, said recent Harvard graduate Pliny Merrick in 1817, would never suffer the fate of Greece and Rome. Its political institutions were “susceptible of infinite improvement,” said Merrick, who went on to a distinguished legal career in Massachusetts; they “will endure unhurt by the ravages of time, and . . . future ages will be their witness, that ‘decay’s effacing fingers’ are too feeble to crush their massive columns!”51
With new progressive conceptions of the social process, educated and reflective observers found it increasingly difficult to hold to the eighteenth-century conspiratorial notion that particular individuals were directly responsible for all that happened. The kind of conspiratorial thinking that lay behind the Bavarian Illuminati scare in the 1790s, for example, no longer had quite the same appeal for many educated ministers and Yale professors. Conspiratorial interpretations of events—attributing complicated concatenations of events to the motives of particular individuals—still thrived (witness the popularity of the “slave power conspiracy”), but with the spread of scientific thinking about society many of these sorts of conspiratorial interpretations began to seem increasingly primitive and quaint.52
Changing their conception of how things happened in society was only one of many transformations Americans experienced in the early nineteenth century. Although nature had been important to liberally educated eighteenth-century Americans, it was not America’s wilderness or its landscape the Revolutionary gentlemen of the Enlightenment had sought to celebrate. Instead, they had honored the natural order of a Newtonian universe that transcended all national boundaries. In 1789 geographer Jedidiah Morse had seen nothing special, just “curious,” in Niagara Falls; instead of the wilds of nature, Morse, like most enlightened eighteenth-century Americans, had admired well-laid-out villages and productive land. The British immigrant artist William Strickland likewise had known the difference between civilization and nature, and, speaking for the enlightened everywhere in the eighteenth century, he had wanted no part of raw nature. In 1794 Strickland had told people back in Britain that he went “about 50 miles beyond Albany, just sufficiently near the verge of barbarism to give me an idea of the country in a state of nature which having once seen I feel not the least inclination to revisit.”53
By the early nineteenth century, however, artists were changing their view of the untamed landscape. They were beginning to explore the wilds and forests of America and to paint what they now called the sublime grandeur of nature, including Niagara Falls. “Do not our vast rivers,” declared Joseph Hopkinson to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1810, “vast beyond the conception of the European, rolling over immeasurable space, with the hills and mountains, the bleak wastes and luxuriant meadows through which they force their way, afford the most sublime and beautiful objects for the pencil of the Landscape?” The wilderness was no longer a source of fear and revulsion; it had become a source of admiration and pleasure. Indeed, some even began “lamenting the melancholy progress of improvement” and the “savage hand of cultivation.”54
The Enlightenment was passing in other ways as well. All of the learned and scientific societies formed in the period, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 to the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York in 1814, rested on the eighteenth-century assumption that science or learning (the two were equated) was what distinguished cultivated gentlemen from savages and made them citizens of the world. For the enlightened members of these societies, science was cosmopolitan, taxonomic, and contemplative. The study of nature raised man “above vulgar prejudice” and enabled him “to form just conceptions of things.” It expanded “his benevolence,” extinguished “everything mean, base, and selfish in his nature,” gave “a dignity to all his sentiments,” and taught “him to aspire to the moral perfections of the great author of all things.”55
This sort of enlightened contemplative science was not supposed to be connected too closely to the nitty-gritty of life. Although Jefferson had always emphasized that knowledge in the New World should be useful and applicable to “the common business of life,” he was appalled by the idea that medical research might go on in hospitals. As far as he was concerned, hospitals were charitable institutions for the sick and the destitute, not places for science. Utility was important for eighteenth-century enlightened science but not all-encompassing. “The cultivation of knowledge, like the cultivation of virtue, is its own reward,” declared DeWitt Clinton, in one of the last echoes of the Enlightenment’s impulse. By 1814 not only had classical virtue become a behaviorist morality for the American masses, but enlightened knowledge was no longer its own reward: it had become an everyday instrument for the promotion of American prosperity.56
By the early nineteenth century, scientists, under pressure to explain their serene detachment from the world, were strenuously subverting the Enlightenment for the sake, in the words of Dr. Thomas Ewell, of “the dignity of independence and the glory of usefulness” and urging each other to turn their backs on the generalities of European science in the name of American particularities.57 The contemplative and cosmopolitan sciences of the eighteenth century, physics and astronomy, now gave way to the more vital and patriotic sciences of biology and chemistry.
The eighteenth-century abstractions of the Enlightenment no longer seemed relevant. As the Jeffersonian chemist and émigré from England Thomas Cooper declared in 1817, “The days of metaphysical philosophy when the learned argued from generals to particulars . . . are gone by.” Knowledge was acquired from the bottom up and could no longer deal “in abstract propositions” and be the exclusive business of the learned, elevated few; it belonged to everyone and had to enter “into our everyday comforts and conveniences.” Cooper even justified the study of chemistry for its usefulness in the preparing and marinating of food.58
He was not alone in this desire to give chemistry a down-home usefulness, a peculiarly American desire that British critics enjoyed mocking. Jefferson urged Cooper to apply his chemistry “to domestic objects, to malting, for instance, brewing, making cider, to fermentation and distillation generally, to the making of bread, butter, cheese, soap, to the incubation of eggs, etc.” John Adams agreed. He told John Gorham, professor of chemistry at Harvard, that chemists ought to forget about “deep discovery” and instead concentrate on giving “us the best possible bread, butter, cheese, wine, beer, and cider.”59
In its search for some sort of foundation in the popular mass, science kept sinking into curiosity-hunting and gimmickry. Charles Willson Peale, despite his devotion to the taxonomic and contemplative majesty of the natural world, nevertheless loved novelties and used all sorts of amusements to attract customers to his museum. He eventually resorted to hiring a popular musical performer who played five different instruments simultaneously, using all parts of his body. Following Peale’s death the museum passed into the enterprising hands of P. T. Barnum, becoming part of his traveling circus—a romantic ending for an Enlightenment institution.
Others too had sought in a good Enlightenment manner to find a taxo-nomic principle under which a multitude of phenomena could be gathered. Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill thought he had discovered an element, which he called septon, that was the cause of decay and of most diseases, including cancer, leprosy, scurvy, and ringworm. But no physician went as far as Dr. Benjamin Rush in seeking the universal theory that would purge medicine of its complexities and mysteries.
Rush had inherited a system of medicine that numbered diseases in the hundreds. Dr. William Cullen, Rush’s teacher in Edinburgh, for example, recorded 1, 387 diseases and remedies. Rush came to equate this complicated array of diseases with the ancien régime of monarchy. He wanted to severely systemize his nosology and create an enlightened medicine that ordinary people would find as reasonable and comprehensible as they found republican government. “It is no more necessary that a patient should be ignorant of the medicine he takes, to be cured by it,” he said, “than that the business of government should be conducted with secrecy, in order to insure obedience to the laws.” If the Old World’s medicine were sufficiently simplified and republicanized, he argued, medicine could be “taught with less trouble than is taken to teach boys to draw, upon paper or slate, the figures of Euclid.” Even nurses and wives could be taught to administer remedies. Rush lectured his students in English, urged an end to the prescribing of medicines and writing of dissertations in the “dead language” of Latin, and even took to prescribing medicines and remedies by direct mail and through the newspapers.
But he let his enlightened reform of medicine get out of hand. Influ-enced by his classmate at Edinburgh John Brown, who had reduced the number of diseases to two, Rush carried the simplification to its ultimate conclusion and reduced all the hundreds of diseases to only one—fever, caused by convulsive tension in the blood vessels. As a good advocate for the Enlightenment, Rush believed that “truth is an unit. It is the same thing in war—philosophy—medicine—morals—religion—and government; and in proportion as we arrive at it in one science, we shall discover it in others.” Just as there was but one God and one source of sovereignty in government, the people, so, Rush contended, there had to be only one source of disease, with the cure being purging and bleeding.
Rush had acquired much of his reputation as a physician by his heroic participation in the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Despite his courageous devotion to his patients during the epidemic, however, Rush had lost many of them, largely because of his routine bleeding. Rush tended to bleed all his patients regardless of the nature of their illnesses. From consumption to cancer, he treated all diseases by reducing tension through purging and blood-letting. Unfortunately for his patients, he overestimated the amount of blood in the human body. He thought most people had twelve quarts of blood, double the six quarts in the average person. Since he often took from his patients as many as five quarts of blood in a day and a half, it is not surprising that so many of them died. The Federalist journalist William Cobbett termed Rush’s method of bleeding “one of those great discoveries which are made from time to time for the depopulation of the earth.” This became one of the statements that Rush used in his successful suit for libel against Cobbett.60
Rush even came to believe that mental illness was caused by excessive fever in the brain, with bleeding as the remedy. But Rush’s eighteenth-century simplification turned out to be too extreme. Inevitably, many physicians and scientists became disillusioned with such Enlightenment a priori theories, and they reacted by swinging to the opposite extreme, leaving medicine and other sciences drowning in a sea of empiricism and Baconian fact-gathering.61
By the early nineteenth century old-fashioned enlightened scientists were criticized for their “careless flights of fancy” when all they needed was “an accumulation of well ascertained facts”—facts that could be gathered democratically by everyone and that would speak for themselves. Theories did not matter anymore; just gather the facts, and knowledge would automatically emerge. “In composing a work like the present,” said physician James Mease of his Picture of Philadelphia (1811), “the author is of opinion that the chief object ought to be the multiplication of facts, and the reflections arising out of them ought to be left to the reader.” Mease told his readers that 14, 355 gallons of oil were used in city lamps per year and that 8, 328 printed sheets were put out by the eight daily newspapers. In setting forth facts in this manner, Mease intended his readers to reach their own conclusions about the character of Philadelphia.62
If everything were being left to the reader in this way, then perhaps everyone, in good republican or democratic fashion, could become his own expert and make his own decisions about everything. Charles Nisbet, the president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, saw his worst nightmare being realized. With Americans relying so much on individual judgment, he fully expected, he said, to see soon such books as “Every Man his own Lawyer,” “Every Man his own Physician,” and “Every Man his own Clergyman and Confessor.”63 Dr. Daniel Drake in fact concluded that specialized medical knowledge was no longer the preserve of a few. “Hitherto,” Drake told a group of Ohio medical students in the early nineteenth century, “the philosophers have formed a distinct caste from the people; and the like kinds have been supposed to possess a divine right of superiority. But this delusion should be dispelled, indeed is fast disappearing, and the distinction between scientific and the unscientific dissolved. . . . All men to a certain extent may become philosophers.”64
With every ordinary person now being told that his ideas and tastes, on everything from medicine to art and government, were as good as if not better than those of “connoisseurs” and “speculative men” who were “college learnt,” it is not surprising that truth and knowledge, which had seemed so palpable and attainable to the enlightened late eighteenth century, now became elusive and difficult to pin down.65 As popular knowledge came to seem as accurate as the knowledge of experts, the borders the enlightened eighteenth century had painstakingly worked out between religion and magic, science and superstition, naturalism and supernatural-ism, became blurred. Animal magnetism now seemed as legitimate as gravity. Popular speculations about the lost tribes of Israel seemed as plausible as scholarly studies of the origins of the Indian mounds of the Northwest. Dowsing for hidden metals appeared as rational as the workings of electricity. And crude folk remedies were even thought to be as scientific as the bleeding cures of enlightened medicine.
The result was an odd mixture of credulity and skepticism among many middling Americans. Where everything was believable, everything could be doubted. Since all claims to expert knowledge were suspect, people tended to mistrust anything outside of the immediate impact of their senses. They picked up the Lockean sensationalist epistemology and ran with it. They were a democratic people who judged by their senses only and who doubted everything that they had not seen, felt, heard, tasted, or smelled. Yet because people prided themselves on their shrewdness and believed that they were now capable of understanding so much from their senses, they could be easily impressed by what they sensed but could not comprehend. A few strange words spoken by a preacher, or hieroglyphics displayed on a document, or anything written in highfalutin language could carry great credibility. In such an atmosphere hoaxes of various kinds and charlatanism and quackery in all fields flourished.66
IN THE NEW DOWN-TO-EARTH populist world of the nineteenth century, the previous century’s idea of the benefaction of science to mankind inevitably became identified with hardheaded utilitarianism. The rush of technological inventions in these years—steamboats, clocks, lamps, and numerous machines for doing everything from carding wool to cutting nails—was not unanticipated by Enlightenment philosophers like Jefferson, but the new business significance given to them was. While some of the devices of these years, like Jefferson’s moldboard, were the result of the detached ingenuity of enlightened gentlemen-scientists, most inventions were the products of middling men of humble origins, such as Oliver Evans and Thomas Blanchard, seeking not fame but more efficient and more profitable ways of doing things.67
Oliver Evans, perhaps the most important inventor of his generation, was born in Delaware in 1755 and apprenticed to a wheelwright at age sixteen. With labor costs so high compared to those in England, clever young Americans like Evans immediately sought to devise machines that would cut down on the use of manual labor. Like other middling inventors in these years, Evans, once he got going inventing one thing, quickly thought of other machines for saving time and money. He first developed a carding machine for combing fibers for spinning and later a grain-grinding machine that led to a fully automated flour mill—setting the standards for flour-milling for the next several generations. After 1800 he concentrated on what became his most important invention, his high-pressure steam engine. In 1806 he opened his Mars Works in Philadelphia, and during the following decade he supervised the construction of dozens of steam engines and boilers, which became the driving force for most steamboats and factory machinery throughout the country.68
Thomas Blanchard was born in Sutton, Massachusetts, in 1788. He disliked both farming and the little schooling he had, but by concocting an apple-paring machine at age thirteen he demonstrated an early aptitude for inventiveness. Working in his older brother’s tack-making shop, he created a tack-counting device and later a machine that cut and headed five hundred tacks per minute, which he was able to sell for five thousand dollars. Blanchard’s experience, like that of other middling inventors of these years, demonstrates that most of the many inventions of the period were based not on any rare technical expertise or on extensive financial resources but rather on commonly available knowledge that an ordinary worker with some ingenuity and modest amounts of capital could apply to a specific problem. Among Blanchard’s numerous inventions the most important was his unusual turning lathe that allowed for the production of irregular wooden shapes, including gun stocks. He took out over two dozen patents for his many inventions.69
With example after example of middling people like these becoming rich and successful, it was hard to think of scientific education as anything other than a means of releasing individual talents for the individual’s profit, which was increasingly a pecuniary one. In Europe, said the North American Review in 1816, wealth was a prerequisite for new discoveries in science. In America, however, “we do all these as a means of acquiring wealth.” Lacking the “large establishments and expansive endowments” of the Europeans, Americans, said Jacob Bigelow, in his 1816 inaugural lecture as Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard, had fundamentally altered the nature and sociology of scientific investigation. In Europe, the branches of the physical sciences were “pursued by learned men” interested in abstract theory. By contrast, the sciences in America have been pursued by ordinary “ingenious men” who, “unambitious of fame” and possessed with “a spirit or enterprise and perseverance” and “a talent of invention,” have mainly “had utility for their object.” Consequently, said Bigelow, who went on to develop what was labeled the science of technology, “we have had few learned men, but many useful ones,” which “has entitled us to the character of a nation of inventors.”70
This nation of inventors was creating new kinds of heroes. As early as 1796 an English author of children’s stories popular in the United States argued in a tale entitled “True Heroism” that the great men of the present could no longer be the “kings, lords, generals, and prime ministers” who had shaped public life in the past. Instead, the true heroes now were becoming those who “invent useful arts, or discover important truths which may promote the comfort and happiness of unborn generations in the distant parts of the world.” This was a message that Americans readily responded to, much to the disgust of the Federalists. Inventors and talented workmen were no doubt important, declared a writer in the Port Folio in 1810, “but if we crown with civic wreath every fortunate patentee of a steam engine or carding machine, every judicious speculator in merinos or Fezzan sheep, what honours have we left for wisdom and virtue?”71
By the early nineteenth century technology and prosperity were assuming for Americans the same sublime and moral significance that the Enlightenment had reserved for the classical state and the Newtonian universe. Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, and Robert Fulton, creator of the steamboat, became national heroes to the hundreds of thousands of artisans and others in the country who worked with their hands. Roads, bridges, and canals were justified by their fostering of “national grandeur and individual convenience,” the two now being inextricably linked.72 It was not virtue or sociability that held this restless and quarrelsome people together, said architect and economist Samuel Blodgett in 1806; it was commerce, “the most sublime gift of heaven, wherewith to harmonize and enlarge society.” If America were ever to “eclipse the grandeur of European nations,” it could not be in Hamilton’s Old World terms of building a great and powerful nation; it had to be in America’s new Jeffersonian terms: in its capacity to further the material welfare of its ordinary citizens.73
AT THE OUTSET many members of the Revolutionary elite, including Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Francis Hopkinson, had inadvertently contributed to the popularization and vulgarization of the culture. Many of them had attacked the study of the “dead languages” of Greek and Latin as time-consuming, useless, and unrepublican without appreciating the unintended consequences of their attacks. Such study of Greek and Latin, Rush had said, was “improper in a peculiar manner in the United States” because it tended to confine education only to a few, when in fact republicanism required everyone to be educated.74
Yet when some of these enthusiastic republican gentlemen began to glimpse the populist and anti-intellectual results of these attacks on liberal learning, they began to have second thoughts about what they had said. Even Rush, though he retained his dislike of the heathenish classics on religious grounds, by 1810 came to realize that “a learned education” ought once again to “become a luxury in our country.” If college tuitions were not immediately raised, he said, “the great increase in wealth among all classes of our citizens” would enable too many ordinary people, particularly plain farmers, to pay for a college education for their sons “with more ease than in former years when wealth was confined chiefly to cities and to the learned professions.” It was one thing for a practical knowledge of “reading, writing, and arithmetic . . . to be as common and as cheap as air,” said Rush; in a republic everyone should have these skills, and “they should be a kind of sixth or civic sense.” But it was quite another thing with a college liberal arts education. “Should it become universal, it would be as destructive to civilization as universal barbarism.”75
Rush had come to perceive that middlebrow adoption of liberal learning was insidiously draining its integrity away without anyone’s being the wiser. In fact, the middling sorts were diluting everything they touched. The enlightened clergyman from Salem, Massachusetts, William Bentley, who commanded twenty languages, possessed a library of four thousand volumes, and knew something about everything, had very high hopes for the spread of knowledge through newspapers. For several decades, beginning in the early 1790s, this polymath made available his encyclopedic knowledge to his fellow citizens in regular essays in the local papers. Twice a week he presented digests of the most important domestic and foreign news, including notices of new books and significant scientific discoveries. He often illustrated his columns with original documents, which usually he himself had translated. In his news summaries Bentley aimed to get beyond “the conversation of the day, or the reports of passing moment,” in order for his readers to understand “the causes which produce interesting events.” He hoped that his biweekly columns and newspapers in general would become an important means of elevating the knowledge of “all classes of readers.”
By 1816 his enlightened dreams of newspapers becoming agents of education for the public had dissipated. The press, he now realized, had become simply a source of “public entertainment,” filled with inconsequential and parochial pieces of information. “The great number of newspapers,” he ruefully recognized, “put in circulation every incident which is raised in every local situation. . . . So not a fire, an accident, a fear or a hope but it flies quickly throughout the union.” How could judicious analyses of foreign policy and careful discussions of domestic politics compete with such trivial and ephemeral incidents of daily life? “The public mind,” Bentley complained, “is already unaccustomed to weigh these things,” and consequently was sinking into a sea of mediocrity.76
Most Federalists and many disillusioned Republicans like Rush and Bentley thought that America would be better off with the Visigoths at the gates than with this degradation and disintegration from within.
BUT IT WAS TOO LATE. Not only were the middling people popularizing America’s culture, but they were as well creating the country’s sense of identity, even its sense of nationhood. Many Americans had hoped that participation in the War of 1812 would in an aristocratic manner vindicate the honor of the new Republic and establish its reputation in the world. But by the end of the war America’s conception of its national character was becoming much more indebted to the middling people’s go-getting involvement in commerce and enterprise. These ambitious, risk-taking entrepreneurs, who were coming into their own by the second decade of the nineteenth century, were the generation that imagined the myth of the American dream. They went way beyond the eighteenth century’s earlier celebration of America as “the best poor man’s country” and created, as Joyce Appleby, the foremost historian of this post-Revolutionary generation, points out, “a new character ideal . . .: the man who developed inner resources, acted independently, lived virtuously, and bent his behavior to his personal goals.” The middling sorts who created this ideal extolled hard work and ingenuity and wrote the hundreds of stories of “the self-made man,” which, says Appleby, appeared “as a recognizable type for the first time in this era.” In short, these middling men invented America’s sense of itself as a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving Americans. Even today their sense that America is a land of opportunity and enterprise remains alive and influential.77
Although this peculiar identity was a Northern middle-class creation, it quickly came to be embraced by the nation as a whole. In fact, Northern characteristics of enterprise and hard work were now categorized as “national” while Southern qualities were viewed as sectional or regional, “a development,” notes Appleby, “that the Virginians who initiated the move for a ‘more perfect union’ provided by the Constitution could never have predicted.”78
Although most Southern farmers were not slaveholders and many of the plain folk of the South valued hard work as much as any ambitious Northern artisan, these ordinary Southern folk could never give the same kind of enterprising middling tone to Southern society that existed in the North. There were fewer middling institutions in the South—fewer towns, schools, newspapers, businesses, manufacturing firms, banks, and shops. And there were fewer middling people in the South—fewer teachers, physicians, clerks, publishers, editors, and engineers. The antebellum South never became a middling commercial-minded society like that of the North. Its patrician order of large slaveholders continued to dominate both the culture and the politics of the section.
Although the great Southern planters celebrated the advance of republicanism and the destruction of monarchy everywhere, their confidence in republicanism, unlike that of the Federalists of the North, was necessarily based on their ability to take the hierarchy and deference of their slave society for granted. Yet, as opposition to slavery grew in the North, the Southern planters began to create ever more elaborate apologies and defenses of their “peculiar institution.” Many of the younger planters were even beginning to argue that the very existence of civilization depended on slavery. By 1815 the South seemed sharply separated from the North in ways that had not been true a generation earlier.
In 1789 the South and especially Virginia had been the impelling force in creating the nation. By 1815 the South and slaveholders still seemed to be in control of the national government. President Madison was a slaveholder. So too were Speaker of the House Henry Clay, James Monroe, the secretary of state, and George W. Campbell, the secretary of the treasury. All the Republican leaders of the House were slaveholders. In 1815 the United States had four missions in Europe: two of them were held by slaveholders. The chief justice of the United States was a slaveholder, as were a majority of the other members of the Court. Since 1789 three of the four presidents, two of the five vice-presidents, fourteen of the twenty-six presidents pro tempore of the Senate, and five of the ten Speakers of the House had been slaveholders.79
Nevertheless, despite this political dominance, many slaveholding Southerners had a growing uneasiness that the South was being marginalized by the dynamic, enterprising, and egalitarian North, which was rapidly seizing control of the nation’s identity. By 1815 Virginia was still the most populous state in the nation, with nearly nine hundred thousand people. But the growth of its white population had slowed dramatically, its land was depleted, and it no longer possessed its earlier confidence that it would always be in charge of the nation. Many of its vigorous and ambitious younger people were fleeing the state. In fact, as many as 230 men born in Virginia before 1810, including Henry Clay, were eventually elected to Congress from other states.80
While the North was busy building schools, roads, and canals, Virginia was in decline. As early as 1800, according to one Virginian, Albemarle County, Jefferson’s home county, had become a “scene of desolation that baffles description.” Farms were “worn out, washed and gullied, so that scarcely an acre could be found in a place fit for cultivation.” Even as the Virginia planters were celebrating the yeoman farmer and the agricultural way of life, some of them sensed that their best days were behind them. In 1814 John Randolph spoke for many of them in reflecting on the decline and ruin he saw in Virginia’s Tidewater.
The old mansions, where they have been spared by fire (the consequence of the poverty and carelessness of their present tenants), are fast falling into decay; the families, with a few exceptions, dispersed from St. Mary’s to St. Louis; such as remain here sunk into obscurity. They whose fathers rode in coaches and drank the choicest wines now ride on saddlebags, and drink grog, when they can get it. What enterprise or capital there was in the country retired westward.81
The Southern planters, bewildered and besieged by the fast-moving commercial developments in the North, reacted, as Jefferson did, by turning inward, blaming conniving, mercenary, hypocritical Yankees for their problems, and becoming increasingly anxious and defensive about slavery. Although in the first decade of the nineteenth century foreign travelers had observed how confident most Virginians were that slavery would eventually disappear, that confidence soon dissipated. In 1815 an English visitor was struck by how much Virginians talked about slavery. It was “an evil uppermost in every man’s thoughts,” an evil, he noted, “which all deplore, many were anxious to flee, but for which no man can devise a remedy.” Soon, however, many Southerners became less and less willing to talk about slavery in front of strangers.82
BY THE END OF THE WAR OF 1812 the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in America was clearly over. The people of the United States no longer had the same interest in a cosmopolitan connection with Europe. France no longer influenced American thinking, and with the demise of the Federalists, the cultural authority of England lost much of its fearsomeness. Most Americans abandoned any lingering sense that they were “secondhand” Englishmen and concluded that they no longer needed to compete with Europe in a European manner. Instead, they turned in on themselves in admiration at their own peculiarities and spaciousness.
In 1816, much to the chagrin of Jefferson and other enlightened figures, Congress enacted a duty on imported foreign books. Jefferson protested, as did Harvard, Yale, and other elite institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but to no avail. “Our Government,” declared the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in defense of the tariff,
is peculiar to ourselves and our books of instruction should be adapted to the nature of the Government and the genius of the people. In the best of foreign books we are liable to meet with criticism and comparisons not very flattering to the American people. In American editions of these the offensive and illiberal parts are expunged or explained, and the work is adapted to the exigencies and tastes of the American reader. But withdraw the protection, our channels of instruction will be foreign; our youth will imbibe sentiments, form attachments and acquire habits of thinking adverse to our prosperity, unfriendly to our Government, and dangerous to our liberties.83
Although Jefferson was appalled by this sort of parochial and unenlightened thinking—this repudiation of everything the cosmopolitan Enlightenment had been about—his own despairing reaction to the nineteenth-century world he saw emerging was not much different. He himself withdrew mentally from Europe. Nature had placed America in an “insulated state,” he told Alexander von Humboldt in 1813. It “has a hemisphere to itself. It must have its separate system of interests, which must not be subordinated to those of Europe.” He loathed the new democratic world that America had become—a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity; and he railed against this world that was full of “pseudo-citizens . . . infected with the mania of rambling and gambling,” and indeed turned his back on it, withdrawing more and more to the sanctuary of his mountaintop home, Monticello. He had come to believe, as he said in 1813, that, in the face of this Northern obsession with money and commerce, the principles of free government that he had struggled so long to promote now must retreat “to the agricultural States of the south and west, as their last asylum and bulwark.” All he could do to counteract the threat posed by the “pious young monks from Harvard and Yale” was to hunker down in Virginia and build a university that would perpetuate true republican principles. “It is in our seminary,” he told Madison, “that that vestal flame is to be kept alive.”84
Although the world of the early nineteenth century was spinning out of Jefferson’s control or even his comprehension, no one had done more to bring it about. It was Jefferson’s commitment to liberty and equality that justified and legitimated the many pursuits of happiness that were bringing unprecedented prosperity to so many average white Americans. His Republican followers in the North had created this new world, and they welcomed and thrived in it. They celebrated Jefferson and equal rights and indeed looked back in awe and wonder at all the Founders and saw in them heroic leaders the likes of which they knew they would never see again in America. Yet they also knew they now lived in a different world, a bustling democratic world that required new thoughts and new behavior.
Americans had begun their experiment in national republicanism seeking a classic and cosmopolitan destiny in a Western trans-Atlantic world they felt very much a part of. Many of them sought to receive the best of Western culture, and some of them even wanted to emulate the powers of Europe by building a similar fiscal-military state. But by 1815 most Americans had come to perceive their destiny in America itself, by becoming an unprecedented kind of democratic republic.
Indeed, with Europe restored to monarchy after 1815 and the monarchies joined together in a Holy Alliance against liberalism and revolution, Americans were coming to believe that their democracy was all the more peculiar and significant. “Alliances, Holy or Hellish, may be formed, and retard the epoch of deliverance,” declared Jefferson; they “may swell the rivers of blood which are yet to flow.” But they will eventually fail. America would remain as a light to the world showing that mankind was capable of self-government.85
Yet beneath the Americans’ excitement over their newfound Americanness lay what Jefferson bemoaned as “the miseries of slavery.” The War of 1812 was no sooner concluded than the country became seriously divided over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. That crisis stripped away the illusions that both the North and the South had entertained about slavery. Suddenly, Northerners came to realize that slavery was not going to disappear naturally, and Southerners came to realize that the North really cared about ending slavery. From that moment few Americans had any illusions left about the awful reality of slavery in America.
To Jefferson the crisis was “a fire bell in the night,” filling him and many other Americans with the terror that they had heard “the knell of the Union.” Jefferson feared that all he and “the generation of 1776” had done “to acquire self-government and happiness to their country” was now to be sacrificed and thrown away by the “unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.”86
The Missouri crisis, said Jefferson, was “not a moral question, but one merely of power.”87 He was wrong. It was a moral question, and the passions of the sons of the Founders were neither unwise nor unworthy; indeed, they had been his passions as well—the love of liberty and the desire for equality. No American had spoken more eloquently or more fully for the radical impulse of the Enlightenment than Jefferson. No one had expressed the radical meaning of the Revolution—the deposing of tyrannical kings and the raising up of common people to an unprecedented degree of equality—than Jefferson. Yet he always sensed that his “empire of liberty” had a cancer at its core that was eating away at the message of liberty and equality and threatening the very existence of the nation and its democratic self-government; but he had mistakenly come to believe that the cancer was Northern bigotry and money-making promoted by Federalist priests and merchants.
In light of Jefferson’s belief that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and that each generation must be free of burdens inherited from the past, there was something perversely ironic in his bequeathing slavery to his successors. But he put all his trust in the ability of the country to educate and enlighten the future generations of Americans. This confidence in education and the future, he confessed in 1817, “may be an Utopian dream, but being innocent, I have thought I might indulge in it till I go to the land of dreams, and sleep there with the dreamers of all past and future times.” Although Jefferson in his final years tried to retain his sunny hopes for the future, he had twinges of an impending disaster whose sources he never fully understood. He and his colleagues had created a Union devoted to liberty that contained an inner flaw that would nearly prove to be its undoing. The Virginians who had done so much to bring about the United States knew in their souls, as Madison intimated in his advice to his country from beyond the grave, that there was a “Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles” in their Arcadian “Paradise.” Like Madison, many of the older generation came to realize that “slavery and farming are incompatible.”88 The Civil War was the climax of a tragedy that was preordained from the time of the Revolution. Only with the elimination of slavery could this nation that Jefferson had called “the world’s best hope” for democracy even begin to fulfill its great promise.89