“What Then Is the American, This New Man?”
By Arthur M. Schlesinger,
President of the Association, 1942
Presidential address prepared for the Columbus meeting but delivered on the evening of the annual business meeting in Washington, December 30, 1942. American Historical Review 48:2 (January 1943): 225–244.
Books by Arthur M. Schlesinger
This question, posed in the last years of the Revolution by a Frenchman long resident in America, has never ceased to be of challenging interest. It lies at the heart of every inquiry into the national past and of every attempt to understand the present or peer into the future. It concerns specialists in economics, political science, and sociology no less than historians; students of religion, literature, and the arts no less than social scientists; statesmen no less than scholars. If we can once learn why the American has come to be as he is, what his instinctive reactions are to life, how he differs from the people of other lands we shall have gained a deep insight into the springs of national thought and action.
Crèvecœur’s own answer to his question can still be read with profit.1 He was, of course, one of a long procession of Europeans who have tried to describe and appraise the American character. Their writings, though of varying merit, possess the common advantage of presenting an outsider’s point of view, free from the predilections and prepossessions which blur the American’s vision of himself. Viewing the scene from a different background, they are also sensitive to national divergences of which most Americans are unaware. Though bias may influence the individual observer’s judgment, the total number of visitors has been so great as to render far more significant their points of agreement.
The composite portrait that emerges deserves our thoughtful consideration. The attributes most frequently noted are a belief in the universal obligation to work; the urge to move about; a high standard of comfort for the average man; faith in progress; the eternal pursuit of material gain; an absence of permanent class barriers; the neglect of abstract thinking and of the aesthetic side of life; boastfulness; a deference for women; the blight of spoiled children; the general restlessness and hurry of life, always illustrated by the practice of fast eating; and certain miscellaneous traits such as overheated houses, the habit of spitting, and the passion for rocking chairs and ice water.
This inventory, so far as it goes, reveals qualities and attitudes recognizably American. Moreover, the travelers express no doubt as to the existence of a distinctive national character. Americans looking at their fellow countrymen readily identify them as New Englanders or Middle Westerners or Southerners, as products of old native stock or newcomers of immigrant origin, and they remember that at one period of their history the differences between Northerner and Southerner sharpenedinto a sword, causing a tragic civil war. But the detached observer from Europe has always been less impressed by these variations than by the evidences of fundamental kinship, even in slavery times. James Bryce, most perspicacious of the commentators, goes so far as to say: “Scotchmen and Irishmen are more unlike Englishmen, the native of Normandy more unlike the native of Provence, the Pomeranian more unlike the Wurtemberger, the Piedmontese more unlike the Neapolitan, the Basque more unlike the Andalusian, than the American from any part of the country is to the American from any other part.” His conclusion is that “it is rather more difficult to take any assemblage of attributes in any of these European countries and call it the national type than it is to do the like in the United States.”2 The preoccupation of American historians with local and sectional diversities has tended to obscure this underlying reality.
But the particular assemblage of attributes recorded by the travelers leaves much to be desired. Not only is the list incomplete, but it fails to distinguish the significant from the trivial. Since the typical European covered as much ground as possible in a limited stay, his attention was caught by externals. Annoying mannerisms assumed undue importance, as dust in the eye of a wayfarer keeps him from perceiving the main features of the landscape. Thus the gospel of work is hardly to be equated with the addiction to spitting. Some visitors actually prided themselves upon learning much from seeing little.3 More thoughtful ones sought to correlate what they observed with the avowed ideals of the people, such as equality, individualism, and democracy; but except in a few conspicuous instances they lacked sufficient knowledge of the profounder trends in American society to understand either the true inwardness of the ideals or how they manifested themselves in action. Finally, the traveler gave little attention to the crucial problem of why the special combination of traits and attitudes had become endemic within the borders of the United States.
Hence the judgment of these onlookers, though, often clear-sighted and frequently valuable as a corrective, leaves ample room for the student of United States history to venture an answer to Crèvecœur’s question. If the native-born historian be suspect as a party in interest, he may at least strive to observe that counsel of objectivity which his professional conscience reveres. What, then, is the American from the historian’s point of view—or at least from one historian’s point of view? The answer, briefly expressed, is so simple as to be a truism. This “new man”‘ is the product of the interplay of his Old World heritage and New World conditions. Real understanding dawns only when the nature of these two factors is properly assessed.
The Old World heritage consisted merely of that part of European culture which the people who settled America had shared. The great bulk of the colonists, like the immigrants of later times, belonged to the poorer classes. Whether in England or on the Continent, they and their ancestors had been artisans, small tradesmen, farmers, day laborers—the firm foundation upon which rested the superstructure of European cultivation. Shut out from a life of wealth, leisure, and aesthetic enjoyment, they had tended to regard the ways of their social superiors with misgiving, if not resentment, and, by the same token, they magnified the virtues of sobriety, diligence, and thrift that characterized their own order. Even when many of them, notably in England, improved their economic position as a result of the great growth of commerce and industry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they continued to exalt the ancient proprieties. This attitude found its classic spiritual expression in Calvinism. As Professor Tawney has said, Calvinism was “perhaps the first systematic body of religious teaching which can be said to recognize and applaud the economic virtues.”4 It neatly fitted the glove of divine sanction to the hand of prudential conduct, thus giving a sense of personal rectitude to the business of getting ahead in the world. But whether in Britain or elsewhere, whether in the religious groups directly affected or those more remotely influenced, Calvinism merely intensified a pre-existing bent. It is similarly true that the stringent code of morals often attributed to Calvinism, and more particularly to Puritanism, represented a lower-middle-class mentality long antedating the Geneva teachings.
This, then, was the type of human breed upon which the untamed New World exerted its will. It has often been observed that the plants and animals of foreign lands undergo change when removed to America. These mutations arise from differences in climate and geography. But other influences also affected the transplanted European man. One was the temperament of the settler, the fact that he was more adventurous, or more ambitious, or more rebellious against conditions at home than his fellows who stayed put. It is not necessary to believe with William Stoughton that “God sifted a whole Nation that he might send Choice Grain over into this Wilderness,”5 but undoubtedly the act of quitting a familiar life for a strange and perilous one demanded uncommon qualities of hardihood, self-reliance, and imagination. Once the ocean was crossed, sheer distance and the impact of novel experiences further weakened the bonds of custom, evoked unsuspected capacities, and awakened the settler to possibilities of improvement which his forebears had never known.
The conditions offered by an undeveloped continent fixed the frame within which the new life must be lived, the mold within which the American character took form. Farming was the primary occupation. At first resorted to by the settlers to keep from starvation, it quickly became the mainstay of their existence. The Revolution was fought by a people of whom nineteen out of twenty were farmers. With good soil easily obtainable for over a century more, agriculture continued, though with gradually diminishing effect, to provide the pervasive atmosphere of American life and thought. “The vast majority of the people of this country live by the land, and carry its quality in their manners and opinions,” wrote Emerson in 1844.6 Even when the hosts from Continental Europe began to swell the population in the nineteenth century, the rural temper of the nation continued unaltered, for most of the immigrants also turned to farming. This long apprenticeship to the soil made an indelible impress on the developing American character, with results which the modern age of the city has not wholly effaced.
The agriculture of the New World, however, differed from the agriculture of the Old. This was the initial lesson which the colonial newcomers were compelled to learn. Those who had been bred to husbandry in their homelands found many of the traditional methods unsuitable. Those who had worked at urban occupations suffered from an even greater handicap. Densely forested land must be cleared, the wildness taken out of the soil, a knowledge gained of indigenous plants and of the best means of growing them. The settlers of Jamestown were barely able to struggle through the early years. “There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Country in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia,” wrote one of them.7 “Unsufferable hunger” caused them to eat horses, dogs, rats, and snakes, and instances even of cannibalism are recorded.8 As is well known, the Plymouth colonists experienced similar trials. Yet in both cases the woods abounded with native fruits, berries, roots, and nuts; wild game was plentiful; and the near-by waters teemed with fish.
Had these Englishmen been more readily adaptable, they could have enjoyed a gastronomic abundance beyond the reach of even the nobility at home. But reversion to a stage of civilization which the white man had long since outgrown was not easy. At the very first, all the early settlements actually imported food supplies. The Swedish colony on the Delaware did so for twenty years. A knowledge of self-sufficient farming came slowly and painfully, with untold numbers of men, women, and children perishing in the process. In the long run, however, the settlers learned to master their environment. Utilizing native crops and Indian methods of tillage, they abandoned the intensive cultivation required by the limited land resources of the Old World. It was simpler to move on to new fields when the fertility of the old was exhausted. The typical farm was a small one, worked by the owner and his family. Even when the system of staple production emerged in the South, the small independent farmers considerably outnumbered the great slaveholding planters.
Though the colonial agriculturist owed much to the Indians, his European heritage restrained him from imitating them more than he must. Unlike the aborigines, he thirsted for the simple mechanical aids and other amenities which he and his kind had enjoyed in the Old World, and, lacking other means, he proceeded as best he could to reproduce them for himself. Besides wrestling with the soil, every husbandman was a manufacturer and every home a factory, engaged in grinding grain, making soap and candles, preparing the family meat supply, tanning skins, fabricating nails, harness, hats, shoes, and rugs, contriving tools, churns, casks, beds, chairs, and tables. Occasionally he did some of these things for his neighbors for hire. Such activities were supplemented by hunting, trapping, and fishing. As cold weather closed in, the men used their spare time in getting out rough timber products, such as shingles and planks, or spent the long winter evenings before the open fireplace carving gunstocks or making brooms while the womenfolk knitted, spun, or wove.
Under the pressure of circumstances the farmer became a Jack-of-all-trades. As Chancellor Livingston later wrote, “being habituated from early life to rely upon himself he acquires a skill in every branch of his profession, which is unknown in countries where labour is more divided.”9 Take the case of an undistinguished New Englander, John Marshall of Braintree, early in the eighteenth century. Besides tending his farm, he was painter, brickmaker, and carpenter, turned out as many as three hundred laths in a day, bought and sold hogs, and served as a precinct constable.10 The primitive state of society fostered a similar oninicompetence in other walks of life, as the career of Benjamin Franklin so well exemplifies. Lord Cornbury, the ,governor of New York, characterized Francis Makemie as “a Preacher, a Doctor of Physick, a Merchant, an Attorney, or Counsellor at Law, and,” he added for good measure, “which is worse of all, a Disturber of Governments.”11
The pioneer farmer of later times was the colonial farmer reborn. Up and down the Mississippi Valley he faced the same difficulties and the same opportunities as his forefathers, and he dealt with them in much the same way. As time went on., he managed to secure from independent craftsmen and factories certain of his tools and household conveniences; he took advantage of newly invented laborsaving appliances, such as the iron plow and the reaper; and more and more he raised crops for sale in a general market. Along the Atlantic seaboard similar alterations occurred. But whether in the older or the newer communities, these innovations affected the surface rather than the substance of the traditional way of life. Nor did the advent of towns and cities at first do much to change the situation. Mere islands in a sea of population, they long retained marked rural characteristics and depended for a large part of their growth on continued accessions from the countryside.
What qualities of the national character are attributable to this long-persistent agrarian setting? First and foremost is the habit of work. For the colonial farmer ceaseless exertion was the price of survival. Every member of the community must be up and doing. If a contrary spirit showed itself, the authorities, whether Anglican, Puritan, or of a different faith, laid a heavy hand upon the culprit. The Virginia Assembly in 1619 ordered slothful individuals to be bound over to compulsory labor.12 A few years later the Massachusetts Bay Company instructed Governor John Endecott that “noe idle drone bee permitted to live amongst us.,” and the General Court followed this up in 1633 with a decree that “noe prson, howse houlder or othr, shall spend his time idlely or unproffitably, under paine of such punishmt as the Court shall thinke meete to inflicte....”13 Such regulations had long existed in England, where it was hoped, vainly, that they might combat the unemployment and vagrancy of a surplus laboring class; in America their purpose was to overcome a labor shortage, that exigent problem of every new country. Of course, the vast bulk of settlers, inured to toil in the homeland, required no official prodding. They were the hardest-working people on earth, their only respite being afforded by strict observance of the Sabbath as required by both church and state.
The tradition of toil so begun found new sustenance as settlers opened up the boundless stretches of the interior country. “In the free States,” wrote Harriet Martineau in 1837, “labour is more really and heartily honoured than, perhaps, in any other part of the civilised world.”14 Henry Ward Beecher voiced the general opinion of his countrymen when he asserted a few years later, “It would be endless to describe the wiles of idleness—how it creeps upon men, how secretly it mingles with their pursuits, how much time it purloins.... It steals minutes, it clips off the edges of hours, and at length takes possession of days.”15 Even when the usual motives for working did not exist, the social compulsion remained. As William Ellery Channing put it, “The rich man has no more right to repose than the poor,” for no man should so live as to “throw all toil on another class of society.”16 One source of Northern antagonism to the system of human bondage was the fear that it was jeopardizing this basic tenet of the American creed. “Wherever labor is mainly performed by slaves,” Daniel Webster told his fellow members of the Senate, “it is regarded as degrading to freemen”; and the Kentucky abolitionist David Rice pointed out that in the South “To labour, is to slave; to work, is to work like a Negroe.”17 After the Civil War, General W. T. Sherman found public occasion to thank God that the overthrow of involuntary servitude enabled the Southern whites at last “to earn an honest living.”18
Probably no legacy from our farmer forebears has entered more deeply into the national psychology. If an American has no purposeful work on hand, the fever in his blood impels him nevertheless to some form of visible activity. When seated he keeps moving in a rocking chair. A European visitor in the 1890’s found more fact than fiction in a magazine caricature which pictured a foreigner as saying to his American hostess, “It’s a defect in your country, that you have no leisured classes.” “But we have them,” she replied, “only we call them tramps.” The traveler’s own comment was: “America is the only country in the world, where one is ashamed of having nothing to do.”19
This worship of work has rendered it difficult for Americans to learn bow to play. As Poor Richard saw it, “Leisure is the Time for doing something useful”; and James Russell Lowell confessed,
Pleasure doos make us Yankees kind o’ winch,
Ez though ’t wuz sunthin’ paid for by the inch;
But yit we du contrive to worry thru,
Ef Dooty tells us thet the thing’s to du.20
The first deviations from the daily grind took the form of hunting, fishing, barn-raisings, and logrollings—activities that contributed directly to the basic needs of living. As the years went on, the great Southern planters developed rural diversions into a sort of ritual, but their example, like that of the fashionable circles in the cities, made the common man all the more self-conscious when he sought recreation. Nor did the spontaneous gaiety that marked the idle hours of the Germans and Irish who came in the mid-nineteenth century have any other effect than to reinforce suspicions of them formed on other scores. “The American,” wrote a New Yorker of his compatriots in 1857, “enters into festivity as if it were a serious business.”21 And a serious business it has continued to be ever since. Into it goes all the fierce energy that once felled the forests and broke the prairies. We play games not for their own sake but in order to win them. We attend social gatherings grimly determined to have a “good time.” Maxim Gorky said of Coney Island, “What an unhappy people it must be that turns for happiness here.”22 The “rich gift of extemporizing pleasures,” of enjoying leisure leisurely, has, for the most part, been denied us.23 It is significant that the English Who’s Who lists hobbies while the American still excludes them.
The importance attached to useful work had the further effect of helping to render “this new man” indifferent to aesthetic considerations. To the farmer a tree was not a symbol of Nature’s unity but an obstacle to be reduced to a stump and then quickly replaced with a patch of corn or vegetables. In the words of an eighteenth century American, “The Plow-man that raiseth Grain is more serviceable to Mankind, than the Painter who draws only to please the Eye. The Carpenter who builds a good House to defend us from the Wind and Weather, is more serviceable than the curious Carver, who employs his Art to please the Fancy.”24 The cult of beauty, in other words, had nothing to contribute to the stern business of living; it wasn’t “practical.” The bias thus given to the national mentality lasted well into America’s urban age. One result has been the architectural monotony and ugliness which have invariably offended travelers accustomed to the picturesque charm of Old World cities.
On the other hand, the complicated nature of the farmer’s job, especially during the first two and a half centuries, provided an unexcelled training in mechanical ingenuity. These ex-Europeans and their descendants became a race of whittlers and tinkers, daily engaged in devising, improving, and repairing tools and other things until, as Emerson said, they had “the power and habit of invention in their brain.”25 “Would any one but an American,” asked one of Emerson’s contemporaries, “have ever invented a milking machine? or a machine to beat eggs? or machines to black boots, scour knives, pare apples, and do a hundred things that all other peoples have done with their ten fingers from time immemorial?”26 As population increased and manufacturing developed on a commercial scale, men merely turned to new purposes the skills and aptitudes that had become second nature to them. Thus Eli Whitney, who as a Massachusetts farm youth had made nails and hatpins for sale to his neighbors, later contrived the cotton gin and successfully applied the principle of interchangeable parts to the making of muskets; and Theodore T. Woodruff, a New York farm boy, won subsequent fame as the inventor of a sleeping car, a coffee-hulling machine, and a steam plow. In this manner another trait became imbedded in the American character.
The farmer’s success in coping with his multitudinous tasks aroused a pride of accomplishment that made him scorn the specialist or expert. As a Jack-of-all-trades he was content to be master of none, choosing, to do many things well enough rather than anything supremely well. Thus versatility became an outstanding American attribute. In public affairs the common man agreed with President Jackson that any intelligent person could discharge the duties of any governmental office. He had an abiding suspicion of the theorist or the “scholar in politics,” preferring to trust his own quick perceptions and to deal from day to day with matters as they arose. In his breadwinning pursuits the American flitted freely from job to job in marked contrast to the European custom of following permanent occupations which often descended from father to son. The most casual scrutiny of the Dictionary of American Biography discloses countless instances reminiscent of John Marshall and Francis Makemie in colonial times. Thomas Buchanan Read, born on a Pennsylvania farm, was in turn a tailor’s apprentice, grocer’s assistant, cigar maker, tombstone carver, sign painter, and actor before he became a portrait painter, novelist, poet, and Civil War officer. Another personage is listed as “ornithologist and wholesale druggist”; another as “preacher, railway president, author”; and still another as “physician, merchant, political leader, magazine editor, poet, and critic.” The wonder is that, despite such a squandering of energies, they could yet gain sufficient distinction in any phase of their activities to be recalled by posterity.
Even in his principal occupation of growing food, the farmer encountered harsh criticism from foreign visitors because of his practice of wearing out the land, his neglect of livestock, and his destruction of forest resources. But Old World agriculture was based on a ratio of man to land which in the New World was reversed. It was as natural for the American farmer to “mine the soil” and pass on to a virgin tract as it was for the European peasant to husband his few acres in the interest of generations unborn. Not till the opening years of the twentieth century, when the pressure of population dramatized the evils of past misuse, did the conservation of physical resources become a deliberate national policy.
Meanwhile the tradition of wasteful living, fostered by an environment of abundance, had fastened itself on the American character, disposing men to condone extravagance in public as well as in private life. Even official corruption could be winked at on the ground that a wealthy country such as the United States could afford it. In their personal lives Americans were improvident of riches that another people would have saved or frugally used. One recent arrival from England in the early nineteenth century wrote that the apples and peaches rotting in Ohio orchards were more “than would sink the British fleet.” Another immiorant said of her adopted countrymen that she wished “the poor people in England had the leavings of their tables, that goes to their dogs and hogs.”27 A national crisis like the present reveals the ravages of this proclivity. By a sudden inversion of time-honored values the salvaging of kitchen fats, waste paper, abandoned tools, and other discarded materials has become a mark of patriotism.
Toward women the American male early acquired an attitude which sharply distinguished him from his brother in the Old World. As in every new country, women.had a high scarcity value, both in the colonies and later in the settling West. They were in demand not only for reasons of affection but also because of their economic importance, for they performed the endless work about the house and helped with the heavy farm labor. “The cry is everywhere for girls; girls, and more girls!” wrote a traveler in 1866. He noted that men outnumbered women in thirty-eight of the forty-five states and territories. In California the ratio was three to one; in Colorado, twenty to one.28 “Guess my husband’s got to look after me, and make himself agreeable to me, if he can,” a pretty Western girl remarked—“if he don’t, there’s plenty will.”29 In the circumstances men paid women a deference and accorded them a status unknown in older societies. European observers attributed the high standard of sex morals largely to this fact, and it is significant that the most rapid strides toward equal suffrage took place in those commonwealths where the conditions of rural life had lingered longest.
Since the agriculturist regarded his farm only as a temporary abode, an investment rather than a home, he soon contracted the habit of being “permanently transitory.”30 Distances that would have daunted the stoutest-hearted European deterred “this new man” not at all. Many an Atlantic Coast family migrated from place to place across the continent until the second or third generation reached the rim of the Pacific and the next one began the journey back. “In no State of the Union,” wrote James Bryce in 1888, “is the bulk of the population so fixed in its residence as everywhere in Europe; in many it is almost nomadic.”31 But for this constant mingling of people and ideas the spirit of sectionalism would have opened far deeper fissures in American society than it did, for the breadth of the land, the regional diversification of economic interests, and the concentration of European immigrants in certain areas were all factors conducive to separatism and disunity. Instead of one great civil war there might have been many. Apart from the crisis of 1860, however, it has always been possible to adjust sectional differences peaceably. The war between North and South might itself have been avoided if the slave-centered plantation system of agriculture had not increasingly stopped the inflow of persons from other parts of the country as well as from Europe. Denied such infusions of new blood, the Southerners lived more and more to themselves, came to value their peculiarities above the traits they shared with their fellow countrymen, and, in the end, resolved to strike for an independent existence.
As the country grew older and its institutions assumed a more settled aspect, the locomotive tendencies of the Americans showed no signs of abatement. The wanderlust had entered their blood stream. According to a study of population redistribution in 1936, “over the last few decades mobility has been increasing rather than decreasing.”32 The Department of Agriculture reports that the average farm family remains on the same farm for only five or six years and that nearly half the children ultimately go to the towns and cities.33 Urban dwellers take flight with equal facility. On the principle of the man biting the dog, the New York Times, June 14, 1942, reported that a resident of the California town of Sebastapol had lived in the same house for fifty years, although it admitted he was the only one of eleven children who had not gone to other parts. With the advent of the cheap automobile and the passion for long-distance touring, the rippling movement of humanity came to resemble the waves of the ocean. In 1940 the American people owned more motorcars than bathtubs. The pursuit of happiness was transformed into the happiness of pursuit. Foreigners had earlier expressed amazement at the spectacle of dwellings being hauled by horses along the streets from one site to another, but by means of the automobile trailer more than half a million Americans have now discovered a way of living constantly on wheels. The nation appears to be on the point of solving the riddle of perpetual motion.
Geographic or horizontal mobility was the concomitant of a still more fundamental aspect of American life: social or vertical mobility. The European notion of a graded society in which each class everlastingly performed its allotted function vanished quickly amidst primitive surroundings that invited the humblest persons to move upward as well as outward. Instead of everybody being nobody, they found that everybody might become somebody. In the language of James Russell Lowell, “Here, on the edge of the forest, where civilized man was brought face to face again with nature and taught mainly to rely on himself, mere manhood became a fact of prime importance.” This emancipation from hoary custom was “no bantling of theory, no fruit of forethought,” but “a gift of the sky and of the forest.”34 In this manner there arose the ingrained belief in equality of opportunity, the right of every man to a free and fair start—a view which in one of its most significant ramifications led to the establishment of free tax-supported schools. This belief was far from being a dogma of enforced equality. The feeling of the American was “I’m as good as you are” rather than “I’m no better than anyone else.” To benefit from equality of opportunity a man must be equal to his opportunities. The government existed principally as an umpire to supervise the game with a minimum of rules. The upshot was a conception of democracy rigorously qualified by individualism.
This individualistic bias sometimes assumed forms that defied vested authority. The colonists in their relations with the mother country evaded unwelcome governmental regulations and, assisted by their theologians and lawyers, made the most of the doctrine that acts of parliament contrary to their “unalienable rights” were void. Within the colonies those who dwelt remote from the centers of law enforcement adopted a similar attitude toward the provincial governments. The Scotch-Irish who squatted on vacant Pennsylvania lands in the early eighteenth century justified their illegal conduct on the score that “it was against the laws of God and nature, that so much land should be idle while so many Christians wanted it to labor on and to raise their bread.”35 The Massachusetts farmers who followed Daniel Shays later in the century were moved by a similar spirit. As a substitute for constituted authority, the settlers oftentimes set up their own unofficial tribunals, which adjudicated land titles and punished offenders against the public peace. In other instances they resorted to the swifter retribution of individual gunplay or of mob action and lynch law. To use a familiar American expression, they “took the law in their own hands,” thus fostering a habit of violence which survived the circumstances that produced it and has continued to condition the national mentality to the present time.
As a result, Americans tend to act on the principle that men should be equal in breaking the law as well as in making it, that they should enjoy freedom from government as well as freedom under government. Thoreau, the great philosopher of individualism, knew of no reason why a citizen should “ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator.” He declared, “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”36 A similar conviction undoubtedly inspired William H. Seward’s flaming declaration to the proslavery senators in 1850 that “there is a higher law than the Constitution....,”37 just as it actuated the thousands of churchgoing Northerners who secretly banded together to defeat the Fugitive Slave Act. But generally it has been self-interest or convenience, rather than conscience, that has provided the incentive to law defiance, as in the case of the businessman chafing against legislative restrictions or of the motorist unwilling to obey the traffic regulations. Sometimes this attitude has paraded under such high-sounding names as states’ rights and nullification. This lawless streak in the American character has often been directed to wrong purposes, but it has also served as a check on the abuse of governmental powers and as a safeguard of popular rights.
In still another aspect the individualism of the pioneer farmer accounts for the intense cultivation of the acquisitive spirit. In the absence of hereditary distinctions of birth and rank the accumulation of wealth constituted the most obvious badge of social superiority, and once the process was begun, the inbred urge to keep on working made it difficult to stop. “The poor struggle to be rich, the rich to be richer,” remarked an onlooker in the mid-nineteenth century.38 Thanks to equality of opportunity with plenty for all, the class struggle in America has consisted in this struggle of Americans to climb out of one class into a higher one. The zest of competition frequently led to sharp trading, fraud, and chicanery, but in the public mind guilt attached less to the practices than to the ineptitude of being caught at them. Financial success was popularly accepted as the highest success, and not until the twentieth century did a religious leader venture to advance the un-American doctrine that ill-gotten wealth was “tainted money” even when devoted to benevolent uses.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of the American merely as a mechanism set in motion by dropping a coin in the slot. When President Coolidge made his famous remark, “The business of America is business,” he quite properly added, “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists.”39 This dualism puzzled foreign commentators, who found it difficult, for example, to reconcile worship of the Almighty Dollar with the equally universal tendency to spend freely and give money away. In contrast to Europe, America has had practically no misers, and one consequence of the winning of independence was the abolition of primogeniture and entail. Harriet Martineau was among those who concluded that “the eager pursuit of wealth does not necessarily indicate a love of wealth for its own sake.”40 The fact is that, for a people who recalled how hungry and ill-clad their ancestors had been through the centuries in the Old World, the chance to make money was like the sunlight at the end of a tunnel. It was the means of living a life of human dignity. In other words, for the great majority of Americans it was a symbol of idealism rather than materialism. Hence “this new man” had an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, and even persons of moderate wealth gratefully shared it with the less fortunate, helping to endow charities, schools, hospitals, and art galleries and providing the wherewithal to nourish movements for humanitarian reform which might otherwise have died a-borning.
The energy that entered into many of these movements was heightened by another national attitude: optimism. It was this quality that sustained the European men and women who with heavy hearts quit their ancestral firesides to try their fortunes in a strange and far-off continent. This same trait animated the pioneer farmers confronted by the hardships, loneliness, and terrors of the primeval forest and served also to comfort their successors who, though toiling under less dire conditions, were constantly pitted against both the uncertainties of the weather and the unpredictable demands of the market. When Thomas Jefferson remarked, “I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern,” he spoke for all his compatriots.41 To doubt the future was to confess oneself a failure since the life history of almost any American documented the opposite view. A belief in progress blossomed spontaneously in such a soil. If it made some men tolerant of present abuses in the confident expectation that time would provide the cure, it fired others with an apostolic zeal to hasten the happy day. As a keen observer in the middle of the last century said of his fellow countrymen, “Americans are sanguine enough to believe that no evil is without a remedy, if they could only find it, and they see no good reason why they should not try to find remedies for all the evils of life.”42 Not even fatalism in religion could long withstand the bracing atmosphere of the New World. This quality of optimism sometimes soared to dizzy heights, causing men to strive for earthly perfection in communistic societies or to prepare to greet the return of Christ in ascension robes.
It attained its most blatant expression in the national love of bragging. At bottom, this habit sprang from pride in a country of vast distances and mighty elevations and from an illimitable faith in its possibilities of being great as well as big. The American glorified the future in much the same spirit that the European glorified the past. Both tended to exalt what they had the most of, and by a simple transition the American also found it easy to speak of expected events as though they had already happened. Oftentimes the motive was to compensate for an inner feeling of inferiority. This frame of mind prompted statesmen to cultivate spread-eagle oratory, a style which a writer in the North American Review in 1858 defined as “a compound of exaggeration, effrontery, bombast, and extravagance, mixed metaphors, platitudes, defiant threats thrown at the world, and irreverent appeals flung at the Supreme Being.”43
For the same reason the ordinary citizen was encouraged to tell the truth hyperbolically. In the thinly settled sections this manner of speech went by the name of tall talk, causing the backwoods to be known as a “paradise of puffers.”44 A Frenchman, however, referred to a national, not a regional, trait when he said Americans seemed loath to admit that Christopher Columbus had not been an American, and it was an Easterner writing in an Eastern magazine who solemnly averred, “It is easier, say the midwives, to come into this world of America ... than in any other world extant.”45 In business life this indulgent attitude toward veracity lent itself to deliberate attempts to defraud and made the land speculator with his “lithographed mendacity” the natural forerunner of the dishonest stock promoter of recent times.46 Boastfulness is an attribute of youth which a greater national maturity has helped to moderate. Still the War Department in its manual of etiquette for the American soldiers now in England has seen fit to admonish them: “Don’t show off or brag or bluster—‘swank’ as the British say.”47
This facility for overstatement has given a distinctive quality to American humor. In the United States humor has never been part of a general gaiety of spirit. It has had to break through a crust of life thick with serious purpose. Hence it has had to be boisterous and bold, delighting in exaggeration, incongruities, and farcical effects, and reaching a grand climax in the practical joke. Out of a comic mood so induced arose such folk heroes as Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and the myth-embroidered Davy Crockett, whose fabulous exploits flourished in oral tradition long before they were reduced to print. In deference to the national sobriety of temperament the most successful professional humorists have been those who preserved a decorous gravity of expression while telling their incredible yarns.
If this analysis of American characteristics is well founded, then certain modifications might be expected as the primacy of rural life yielded to the rise of urbanism. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century a rapidly increasing proportion of the people found themselves dwelling under conditions different from those of earlier times. In 1860 only a sixth of the nation lived in towns of 8,000 or more, but by 1900 a third resided in urban communities, and today well over half do. Moreover, throughout these years, places of 25,000 or more attracted a majority of the city dwellers.48 Paralleling this urban growth occurred a remarkable development of new means of communication and transport that carried city ideas and ways to “the very fingertips of the whole land”: the telephone, rural free delivery, good roads, inter-urban electric transit, the automobile, the movie, the radio.49 In this changed environment of American society many of the historic national traits flourished; others were tempered or transformed. The period of urban and industrial predominance is short as compared with the long impact of ruralism upon the American mind, but already several reversals of older attitudes are apparent.
One is the importance which Americans have come to attach to cultural achievement. The ancient prejudice against “useless” accomplishments could not long withstand the compelling opportunities offered by the city. In such centers were to be found the best schools, the best newspapers, the best churches, and virtually all the bookstores, libraries, publishing houses, concert halls, art galleries, and theaters. There, too, America made closest contact with the vital thought of Europe. The leveling upward of popular taste insured encouragement and financial support for persons who wanted to cultivate their brains rather than their biceps. Who can ever know how dreadful a toll the two and a half centuries of agricultural existence exacted in terms of possible creative advances of the mind and spirit, how many a “mute inglorious Milton” succumbed to the unending struggle with Nature? For persons like these the city meant a glad release. It gave them a chance to mature their powers, to commune with kindred spirits, and to enter the lists for fame and fortune. Even in earlier times cultural stirrings had centered in the towns and cities. Now, as the urban influence became uppermost, Americans commenced to make contributions to scholarship, science, literature, and the fine arts that challenged comparison with the best Europe could offer.
As a necessary consequence, some of the old aversion to specialization of talent vanished. In a civilization rapidly growing more complex, men began to learn to place a higher value on thoroughly mastering a skill or conquering a particular branch of knowledge. The business of making a living tended to fall into compartments, with the men best equipped by training or experience reaping the greatest rewards. This trend characterized not only the arts and sciences but also the upper ranges of industry and trade. Even in public life expertness of knowledge steadily played a larger part, notably in the administrative services of city, state, and nation. The derisive references to a “Brain Trust” several years ago came from partisan critics who did not, however, intend to abandon the device if or when they should return to power.
A further result of the changed aspect of American society has been the great impetus given to voluntary associational activity. In an agricultural environment the gregarious instinct was constantly thwarted by the dearth of neighbors. The hunger for companionship could find only an occasional outlet, as at the county fair or in the tumultuous crowd gathered from far and near for a camp meeting. To the rural birthright of liberty and equality the city added the boon of fraternity. In a crowded community like could find like. The reformer, the businessman, the wage earner, the intellectual worker, the sports lover, the ancestor worshiper—all these and many others drifted together into special groups to foster interests held in common, and these local societies seldom failed to expand into nation-wide federations. Soon the population was divided between the organized and those who organized them, until, if the late Will Rogers is to be believed, “Americans will join anything in town but their own family. Why, two Americans can’t meet on the street without one banging a gavel and calling the other to order.”50 Thus the passion for associational activity became a sovereign principle of life.
Quite as noteworthy has been another effect of city growth: the renouncing of individualism as the automatic cure of human ills. As the nineteenth century advanced, the increasing domination of the national economy by the urban magnates of business and finance caused the farmers to demand that the government intercede to protect their right to a decent livelihood. In the cities the congested living quarters, the growing wretchedness of the poor, and the rise of difficult social problems also created doubts as to the sufficiency of the laissez-faire brand of democracy. Only the rich and the powerful seemed now to profit from the system of unbridled individualism. Though the solid core of ancient habit yielded stubbornly, the average man came gradually to believe that under the altered conditions it was the duty of the government of all to safeguard equal opportunity for all. After the American fashion it was a doctrineless conviction, the product of an adjustment to new times for the sake of preserving the traditional spirit of self-reliance and free competition.
In this modern age the gospel of work retained its grip upon the American mentality, but the assurance of permanent remunerative work no longer existed, particularly for the army of city toilers. Every sudden jar to the national business structure cast large numbers of them out of employment. The wage earner through no fault of his own was being denied an essential part of his natural heritage.As early as 1893 the American Federation of Labor resolved that “the right to work is the right to life,” and declared that “when the private employer cannot or will not give work the municipality, state or nation must.”51 But it was not until the Great Depression of 1929 destroyed the livelihood of people at all levels of society that this novel view became an article of American faith. The New Deal assumed the obligation not merely of saving the destitute from hunger but of creating jobs for the idle and guarding against such hazards in the future by means of unemployment compensation, retirement payments for aged employees, and special provisions for farmers. Thus what had begun as the community’s need for everyone to work became transformed into a doctrine of the right to work and then into the responsibility of government to provide the means of work.
The national character, as we at present know it, is thus a mixture of long-persistent traits and newly acquired characteristics. Based upon the solid qualities of those Europeans who dared to start life anew across the Atlantic, it assumed distinctive form under the pressure of adaptation to a radically different environment. “Our ancestors sought a new country,” said James Russell Lowell. “What they found was a new condition of mind.”52 The long tutelage to the soil acted as the chief formative influence, removing ancient inhibitions, freeing latent energies, revamping mental attitudes. The rise of the city confirmed or strengthened many of the earlier attributes while altering others. Probably none of the traits is peculiar to the American people; some of them we may regard with more humility than pride; but the sum total represents a way of life unlike that of any other nation.
Just as the American character has undergone modification in the past, so it will doubtless undergo modification in the future. Nevertheless, certain of its elements seem so deeply rooted as to defy the erosion of time and circumstance. Of this order are the qualities that made possible the occupying and development of the continent, the building of a democratic society, and the continuing concern for the welfare of the underprivileged. These are attributes better suited to peace than to war, yet every great crisis has found the people ready to die for their conception of life so that their children might live it. Today the nation is engaged in its mightiest struggle for survival. Let none despair. The American character, whatever its shortcomings, abounds in courage, creative energy, and resourcefulness and is bottomed upon the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Harvard University
2. Bryce, The American Commonwealth (London, 1888), III, 628. Alexis de Tocqueville expressed a similar view some fifty years before in Democracy in America (Henry Reeve, trans., Francis Bowen, ed., Cambridge, 1862), I, 215, 505. [back to text]
3. Count Hermann Keyserling in his widely read volume America Set Free (New York, 1929), p. 5, boasts: “During my travels about the country, I guarded myself with almost old-maidish precaution against information. I looked at none of the obvious sights if I could help it; I asked few questions.... I went out little; I read hardly any papers.” By this procedure he believed he utilized his four months’ visit (which he regarded as needlessly long) for maintaining “contact almost exclusively with the subconscious side of American life.” This may explain why he found “a good deal of truth” in Dr. Carl G. Jung’s psychograph of the American as “a European with the manners of a negro and the soul of an Indian” (pp. 34, 36). Crèvecœur, on the other hand, published his book after more than twenty years’ residence in America, and Bryce wrote his masterly commentary following a succession of leisurely sojourns. “When I first visited America eighteen years ago,” he says in The American Commonwealth, 1, 5–6, “I brought home a swarm of bold generalizations. Half of them were thrown overboard after a second visit in 1881. Of the half that remained, some were dropped into the Atlantic when I returned across it after a third visit in 1883–84: and although the two later journeys gave birth to some new views, these views are fewer and more discreetly cautious than their departed sisters of 1870.” [back to text]
7. George Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia,” abridged in Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes (Glasgow, 1905–07), XVIII, 418. [back to text]
8. “A Briefe Declaration of the Plantation of Virginia duringe the First Twelve Yeares.... By the Ancient Planters nowe Remaining Alive in Virginia,” Thomas H. Wynne and W. S. Gilman, eds., Colonial Records of Virginia (Richmond, 1874), p. 71. [back to text]
19. Serge Wolkonsky, My Reminiscences (Alfred E. Chamot, trans., London, n.d.), p. 219. “In England a man who does nothing goes by the name of ‘gentleman;’ in Chicago he goes by the names of ‘loafer’,” wrote Paul Blouët (Max O’Rell, pseud.) and Jack Allyn in Jonathan and His Continent (Madame Paul Blouët, trans., New York, 1889), p. 237. In a speech at Milwaukee in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt expressed this sentiment in the American way: “I pity the creature who doesn’t work—at whichever end of the social scale he may be.” Henry L. Stoddard, It Costs to Be President (New York, 1938), p. 164. [back to text]
27. Quoted in Marcus L. Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607–1860 (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 157–58. The Short Guide to Great Britain, prepared by the War Department for the American soldiers now in England, cautions them that the British “won’t think any better of you for throwing money around; they are more likely to feel that you haven’t learned the common-sense virtues of thrift” (p. 4). [back to text]
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© 1943, 2000, American Historical AssociationLast Updated: June 8, 2011 4:57 PM