Arts and Sciences
George Bancroft, a superb historian of the age, who had spent a long
time lapping up culture in places like Germany, Italy, and England,
nevertheless believed America to have a greater future in store than
any other nation because of its reliance upon the people. "The measure
of the progress of civilization is the progress of the people," (1854)
and he considered that the people of the United States had gone far.
He was typically the American scholar as optimist.
True, much of America, about one-fourth, could be deemed
civilized at the time - meaning places where people possessed
recognizable arts and sciences - but most of the Americans of the
time seemed to be trying to occupy as much space as they could and
trying to carve out some humble life-style. Civilization to them
meant rather what Indians were not.
But then the moment has come to speak of the fun and games of
Americans (and here once more, alas, the slaves remained simply
slaves, worsening or bettering in small increments with the
economic state of the masters, and the women remained in bondage
-as we shall shortly confirm - and also the workers young and old
except on Sundays).
Did American have a full array of civil games and sports,
thus qualifying in one way to be civilized?
("Savages" didn't play many games; all of life was a game,
including torturing prisoners, drinking whiskey,
and watching the White man make a fool of himself.)
Somehow there was time for the European types to enjoy
games. Games had once been condemned, in early New England.
New York and Virginia had strict seventeenth century laws against
many games, especially where gambling or sex was involved, and
never on Sunday.
But now there were so many games,
that we are unhappily confined to a mere listing. There were :
cockfighting, bear-baiting, pit-bull fights,
rough and tumble fighting, turkey shoots, round-up animal shooting,
fishing for sport rather than food - to name a few less humane sports
that were popular. Should the "necktie party" be
named; lynching was a crowd sport, setting the tone for a hot
summer in many a dull town; there is no accurate count; I would
suggest a figure of 20,000 victims for the 1800's and 1900's;
many more such "parties" were aborted,
by local heroes and heroines. The
"game" began in America in the early 1800's,
apparently authentically American.
Horse-racing, dog-racing, mule-racing, sled-racing, wagon-racing,
sailboat and steamboat racing, even locomotive racing in a later day.
(Tragic boiler explosions were not unexpected.) Gambling at dice and
cards and betting on everything that might happen two ways or more.
(A classic homicide case in American law turned around a bet that the
town drunk could not consume a quart of whiskey in one sitting; he
was happy to oblige, but died, and the bettors were convicted of
murder by the court, despite their defense that, though obviously
drunk at some point, he had consented to begin with.)
But let us mention more gentle pastimes: visiting (usually involving
long walks or rides), hiking, dancing, music, conversation, draughts,
chess, dramas, vaudeville, painting, poetry clubs.
Girls would nurse and dress dolls, skip rope (so, too,
later, boxers in training), play hop-scotch and tag (also boys), and jacks.
The athletic engaged in foot racing, football, cricket, tennis, quoits, sledding,
ninepins, skittles and bowls, shooting
at targets with guns and bows and arrows.
Billiards were fashionable.
Baseball would soon take over the fields, imported from England,
where it was called rounders and had stabilized a set of rules as
early as 1827. (Abner Doubleday copied the rule book and
popularized the game in America twelve years later.)
Practically all of these games and sports were from England, and
beyond England in time and space Europe, Rome, Egypt, India.
American football derived from Anglo-French rugby.
We need await basketball as the only American invention,
this by James Naismith in 1891.
The Mexican rodeo came decades later, and was transformed for
amusement and sent from the West to the East culminating as part of
the great Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Buffalo Bill and Geronimo's
Wild West Show. The circus was European in origin but grew, of
course, Bigger and Better in America. Revolutions in the media of
communication and the means of transportation, that began at about
the same time as the Civil War, pushed a number of sports into the
realms of regional and national attention and competition, and spurred
their professionalization and development into
major business enterprises.
We are already into the performing arts, for that's what the circuses,
side-shows, and carnivals amounted to. Would the Dime Museum
belong to the performing arts? It went back to before the
Revolution, when various mountebanks, entertainers, and strollers
went about exhibiting animals, freaks, mechanical and scientific
oddities, peep shows and wax figures. Some were collected. The
greatest was Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum in New York
beginning in 1841.
Small boys and the poor, native and immigrant, could find in a
proliferation of expositions that began to add live performers to
museum material an understandable entertainment. The medicine
show paralleled the museum, sometimes combining with or traveling
together with it, and the assembled folk might purchase patent
medicines, elixirs of various types, cures for all ailments.
Show business in America started with the Minstrel Show. About
1828 Thomas D. Rice of Cincinnati created a "Jim Crow" show with a
song and dance routine performed in blackface by White men. The
first full-length show called themselves the Virginia
Minstrels and was organized by Dan Emmett. The characters could
be clever or foolish; the blackface came to be more a mask, as was
done in early drama in Europe, than an anti-African caricature.
The genre caught on and by 1846 its structure was in place,
consisting of a repartee with an interlocutor and endmen, followed
by a variety set or "olio" and culminating in a farcical skit.
It became rapid-fire, highly skilled, and witty at its best.
Descended from the Italian commedia dell'arte and the
English music hall, the minstrel show, before
it expired at the turn of the century, handed
over some of its characterizations, skills and ideas to
vaudeville, along with several types of jokes and humor.
The immigrant was a favorite butt and fool:
so this variety show of the 70's jested
He: "A man he stole away my trunk,
In dot was my new pants.
She: Unt ven we asked him how dot vas,
He called us emigrants."
Such low humor risked the penalty of having to go on stage
after a dog act.
The dramatic stage in America was now professionalized and
commercial. Theater was active in the cities, playing a steady
stream of London hits. American plays were moving in, none of
consequence - nor were the British for that matter, except for the
classics, of course. The audiences were lively and likely to become
rowdy, if too animated by the action on the stage. The plays were
long, usually with a main offering followed by a farce.
The Drunkard opened in Boston in 1844 and became the most
popular play ever to grace the Boston boards. In it, a wicked lawyer
conspires to ruin a feckless but good young man, and almost
succeeds, mostly by making a drunk and wastrel out of him, much
to the dismay of his pure wife and child, but ultimately gets his
come-uppance and all ends happily (sic).
German drama received some play. Schiller's The Robbers came to
New York in 1795 in translation, and returned over the years. Several
years later Kotzebue's succession of sentimental heroic dramas,
translated from the German, aroused sizeable audiences. Between
1830 and 1864 among some forty-five German poets to be translated
and published in American collections, Schiller led with 123, followed
in order by Goethe, Uhland, Ruckert, Heine and Geibel. A
considerable literature appeared directly in German in Pennsylvania,
Cincinnati, and St. Louis. This American literature written in German
has never been properly assessed, nor made generally available.
There mains still to be uncovered original music, essays, and theatre,
written in various languages by immigrants or conoscenti;
Yiddish, a Jewish dialect of German, appeared later
and provided an American literature.
More is to be expected from the variations of Spanish
that have begun to clothe the work of Hispanic-Americans.
The lower you were on the social scale or the more subtle your vices,
the more likely you were to listen in on the most original
development of American music in this period, occurring in the
African-American forms of the blues, the syncopated march and
gospel hymns, the oratorios, the ditties, the mumbo-jumbo chants,
and the downright better-performed White music. Ludwig von
Beethoven made close friends with an American violinist,
a half-African slave who had become a classical musician; Beethoven
regarded him as world-class. (Since Beethoven himself was
grandson of a Black, he may have been prejudiced.) The locales were
the plantation slums, and the ghettos of Southern cities. The Blacks
also interacted with the poor Whites who had
their own country music.
White country music was not mountain music alone. It carried on
wherever the Anglo-Celtic and otherwise mixed, poor population
existed - on the tidewater flats, in all the hills that stretched from
Maine to Texas, and in the towns and cities wherever Southern culture
spread. The bearers of Southern culture were not the plantation
aristocrats, but the poor folk, ignorant, Bible-ridden,
rickety, oscillating between drunkenness and teetotalism, and amply
aggressive and hostile when they were not being
called to the love of Christ.
Their country music was not much when it arrived with them in
America, a handful of tunes in the mournful bagpipe intonation
(without the bagpipe) of five, not seven tones, to work with, and no
instrument except occasionally a feeble-sounding dulcimer.
Occasionally a background set of local voices chimed in. Over time,
Old Country songs were given an American setting and plot and a
few musical variations. The Americans selected out the sad themes
from Anglo-Celtic sources, especially parting and death, a
sentimentalism founded upon the harsh realities of
poverty, poor health, social disdain.
The fiddle arrived, and life changed. It may have been toted over the
caste line by Black violinists, more privy to slave master
possessions and habits. With the fiddle, things perked up, feet began
to smoke, the scale grew to a full octave, though the lamenting
minor key was usually preferred. An accommodation was made with
the men of God, so that music could be admitted without
embarrassment. Hymns of evangelic content came in; evangelism
was successful in the poor South in part because it brought in hymns
and encouraged people to sing them.
New secular songs began to be sung: sad, nostalgic, worrying about
lost loves, love unrequited, and the death of loved ones. (Again the
death theme of American literature and song of the first half of the
nineteenth century: could there have been a death drive, a Freudian
thanatos that brought on the Civil War?) Behind the
secular songs there played the theology of evangelism and the
revival. No songs were against religion.
No superior songs originated, nothing so beautiful as
Lomon" or "Danny Boy" of the Celtic homelands.
Patriotic recitals were sung,
like "The Battle of New Orleans."
Hardly the typical American go-getter kind of song.
Yet it came to be the favorite, almost only music,
of most of the people of half the states in the Union.
How come? Because of another typical trait of Americans,
the loneliness and anxiety beneath the hearty sociability
and boastful self-confidence.
After the fiddle came harmony in the nineteenth century, of voices
and instruments, for other instruments were added -- the banjo (out of
Africa) and the guitar (from Spain and Italy via Mexico). Country
music was developing and the butterfly would soon leave the cocoon
to become a billion-dollar business, a stupendous extravaganza. The
poor Southerners would be still back there somewhere, but a person
could not help but listen to their songs once one bought an
automobile with a radio.
There was no music of protest, no music appealing for social action.
Some of these came much later. Rock music had much of country
music in it, and, as it bounced to and fro between Elvis Presley and
the Liverpool Beatles, carried many a fetching complaint.
Bob Dylan (née Zimmerman in Minnesota) composed
the words and music and sang and twanged
many a ballad of love and social protest
in the sixties, in the war against the war in Vietnam.
Many songs of country music deplored the cities and extolled rural
values. Rural Southerners, but also the rural person everywhere,
had to reject the city that had grown up without them. The roots of
anti-urbanism in America go very deep. The people of the British isles
who came early to America were mostly rural. The same
held true of Irish Catholics and the Germans.
Scandinavians when they came were rural.
So there was already a built-in hostility to the city.
The Southern plantation Jeffersonian hated the city.
Jefferson was more anxious about the cities than about
the sources of American destruction underfoot.
There was sheer hypocrisy in urbs-phobia or bucolism;
by every indication Americans have always hated and feared
the wilderness and the vast spaces, so much so,
that they were helped to tolerate it by insistent
songs and stories of the wickedness of the city.
The immensely popular "Home on the Range," that cowboy
Teddy Roosevelt so cherished, was composed by
two Eastern tenderfeet stuck on a homestead in Kansas.
The coming of immigrant groups of different lineage
built up urbs-phobia too. It came about that the country boy
from the hills of Tennessee journeyed to Chicago
expecting only the worst to happen to him, with only his
country songs to comfort him.
Too, of course, Hollywood promoted bucolism,
the image of rural sweetness and light.
The Jesse James gang, a despicable collection of
desperados, was cleansed in the blood of Hollywood cameras.
Wyatt Earp was another, cut out of whole cloth by Director
John Ford. The real Earp was a horsethief, a villainous gangster,
murderer, buddy of gamblers, killers, and prostitutes - elected sheriff
once in a not uncommon turn - consorted to the end of his life with
Josephine Marcus, a "Jewish princess" from San Francisco. In the film,
"My Darling Clementine," (1946) he was resurrected in heroic, benign,
Given their bad public image of violence and stagnation, it could not
be the poor Southerners solely, and had to be the New England and
North European Northerners that made America give rural life its
blessing and brought a curse down upon the city - with all the
rurally caused political malapportionment, financial stringencies, tax
disproportions, crazy-quilt governmental units and districting that
fleshed out the stream of abuse.
Surprisingly, the very media that would be expected to come to the
aid of their own - the city newspapers, magazines and publishers -
went to all lengths to make the cities ashamed of themselves and the
rural people thrill with virtues that they could hardly
have dreamed of possessing. Only a hundred and fifty years later
did we begin to receive an urban setting for
country music themes.
Between 1837 and 1857 a longish period of prosperity for the
well-to-do and rising urban middle classes brought a flood of heavy
furnishings into the homes of the well-to-do, including the piano. In
1829 there was a new pianoforte for every 4,800 persons, two
decades later, a new piano for every 2,777 people, and in 1860 a
new piano for every 1500 persons.
The piano was more an index of rich consumption than of musical
talent. Jonas Pickering in Boston made 1000 pianos annually by
1860, at which time there was already a piano factory in California.
In 1850 the Steinwegs, who had been making pianos in
Germany, emigrated to New York, and in a few years established
themselves as Steinway and Sons. The family was at first
preoccupied with improvements in quality, but gradually public
relations and advertising took most of their attention. Eminent
musicians were promoted playing on Steinway instruments -
Rubenstein and Paderewski among them - and their name became
the hallmark of gentility in homes around the country and abroad.
The Steinways repeatedly bribed juries at international
competitions; they ran their factories paternalistically but
intelligently, and kept unions out. Ultimately they would succumb to
fresh foreign competition, the decline in the prestige of a
piano in the parlor, and electronic recording and
electronic instruments of several kinds.
Evangelism called for more and better singing of religious music, and
industry responded with many church organs,
a great many home reed
organs or melodeons,
and a vigorous business of hymnal composition,
led by a prolific composer and promoter of hymns, Lowell Mason of
Boston. He also produced "glee books,"
collections of secular songs for singing,
from which grew "glee clubs"
that invested most towns and neighborhoods with
tides of loud song.
This was the time of Stephen Foster, erstwhile Cincinnati
bookkeeper turned composer, whose songs like "Old Kentucky Home"
and "Way Down upon the Sewanee River" were to be
crooned endlessly in America and forever. His folklike melodies
merged Anglo-Irish ditties, Afro-chants and Italian arias.
He himself did not fare too well, owing to
John Barleycorn and a disheveled life,
"losing his grip on things."
His songs were of a subdued melancholy, escapes
into old time and Southern space, or old age, or childhood.
He sings of the Mother sentimentally, and of Maidens who
are dead (one notes his consistency with other American authors
who dwelled upon dead women or symbols thereof).
German-Americans founded the earliest music societies in the
1700's. In non-Germanic America, except for Louisiana,
music was a weak art.
Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the Italian librettos of Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, emigrated to New York and opened a
food produce market, which he ran for twenty years.
In the later democratic age, classical music was imported
in large quantities via the concert stage. At first,
with a shortage of proficient musicians -
despite two centuries and 100,000 pianos --
solos, duos, trios and quartets sufficed.
There came Ole Bull, a giant from Norway with a marvelously
evocative violin. He composed a number of pieces that he played He
came and came again repeatedly, giving in the end 200 concerts after
100,000 miles of travel. So, too, Jenny Lind, the "Swedish
nightingale," presented by the notorious promoter Barnum, who paid
her $1000 per concert plus half of the net
profits, which were large.
In 1848 the Germania Society philharmonic orchestra came to play.
Then other symphony orchestras, and finally America started up its
own - remarkably the pattern followed with every art form.
Anthony Heinrich came over from Bohemia to compose
symphonies in classical form and many songs.
It was a vastly enthusiastic and imitative nation. All the while
shouting, "We are the best!" When a man could not think of what
else to say to an Englishman, he might offer,
"Here you know, the sun shines."
Two notable art associations operated before the Civil War, the
American Art Union and the Cosmopolitan Art Association. They
hired reproductions, they bought contemporary art, they published
pictorial magazines. The Union, for example, bought
works of the German-American Emanuel Leutze, whose wholly
fictitious painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware"
he painted while in Dusseldorf. Probably it was to be the
best known of all American paintings.
George Caleb Bingham, a "realist" of typical American scenes,
polished up his paintings so that even a mongrel stray seems washed
and brushed for the occasion - a true predecessor of the peculiarly
American Hollywood gift of patining reality. The managers of the
Art-Union premeditated practically all of the purchasing, packaging
and distribution devices of the art clubs and book clubs of the
twentieth century. They were to the American art audience as the
Sears Roebuck Catalogue would one day be to the
One might go on with the several painters, sculptors and "schools"
such as the Hudson Valley landscape school, but one learns little about
art from them. It seems, too, the Americans were more influenced by
novelists than by artists. Charles Dickens was of course in the
possession of every literate person, he and Sir Walter Scott.
Their American publishers made large sums of money.
Some of the better American writers published themselves,
perhaps most of them. Walt Whitman is one instance.
Longfellow is another. Longfellow learned to reformat his poems,
put out variant editions in different setups and collections, and,
with occasional co-publishers,
sold 179,000 volumes
between 1839 and 1861.
Books of exploration and travel were especially well-received,
as if people had not enough exploring to do near home.
Charles Dana's Two Years before the Mast, an autobiography of a
brief period on a sailing ship voyaging around the Horn, was one.
Herman Melville's Typee was another, an idyll of the South Seas.
Bayard Taylor's Lands of the Saracens was a bestseller in 1854.
Books of self-help grew rapidly in this period.
History books were popular, and famous names
like George Bancroft on the United States,
William H. Prescott on the Spanish Empire in the New World,
John Lothrop Motley on the Dutch Republic, and
Francis Parkman, occur.
All forms of publication expanded in print runs and titles during the
ante-bellum years. In 1840 there were 138 dailies, in 1860, 372.
Improving technology (better papermaking machines, the rotary
printing press, 1846, for example) and faster communications
(post-roads, telegraph, railroads, faster steamers, trans-Atlantic cable)
gave an illusion that newspapers were improving in content;
standards of journalism were base.
In 1840 there were 1,266 weeklies,
in 1860 2,971.
The magazine of choice was, however, the Edinburgh Review.
Harper's first issued at mid-century.
Farm income doubled with the population over a thirty year period,
book sales trebled, to $9.5 million in 1860 - but so did all receipts
from manufacturing, to $495 millions, already 40% of all farm income.
Public education in its modern sense began in this period in
America. It was emerging rapidly in Europe at the same time, under
government and Catholic Church auspices, so that there is no reason
for believing that the element of volunteerism was all-important.
The Catholic bishops of America had as first priority to find priests
who could handle the vastly increased parish populations. The not so
faithful, who had quit the Church upon arriving in America, before
priests and churches were present to serve them, according to a
greatly exaggerated estimate, might have produced up to three
millions when, in the eighteen twenties, Catholics were
counted as a few thousands.
No doubt many of the so-called Scots-Irish were Irish Catholics,
forbidden or unable to practice Catholicism; they would rest in some
cases with Protestant churches, but it would have been they also,
whom the revivalists of the second Great Awakening trumpeted
about as given over to atheism and vice on the frontiers.
The next priority was to build churches, and these had to be
pretentious; that was the Catholic mentality. A number of the first
priests were French refugees from the great Revolution, and, put in
charge of parishes composed of Irish clod-hoppers, they proved to
be over-qualified: give us a priest who can orate in Irish-English,
demanded the people, and of course they were right.
They wanted fine churches, aggressive priests and parochial schools:
stubborn parishioners they supplied themselves,
and had enough of already.
They got all three. Schools were begun by the 1830's and
progressed rapidly thereafter. Their curriculum handled the normal
three R's well: reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Their strong
catechismic discipline split the child's character neatly into the
rational secular and the metaphysical religious: the law of
gravitation was one thing, Christ's ascension quite another.
Parochial schools kept up in numbers with the public schools until
the 1940's, then declined steeply, as did the number of
nuns, friars and priests.
Schools espousing reformed theories of education were
Protestant and secular and private at first. In 1837
the Massachusetts legislature created a Board of Education
with Horace Mann as its first Secretary.
There had been already some community public schools, and one
state-supported high school. Now a new teacher's training college or
normal school was set up (whose capabilities became uniformly drab in
pace with its general adoption and imitation around the United
States). In 1852 school attendance for the State's children became
compulsory. Private schools and Catholic schools, by dint of diligent
lobbying, were able to continue their separate existence.
The agitation of Horace Mann and his colleagues at home and
elsewhere could attract numerous elements in the population, even
granted that the well-to-do often wished that only a select few be
provided with schooling at public expense. Protestants needed
children who would read along and be captivated at their Sunday
School Bible classes. The ambitious and skilled workers felt that
schooling was the proper goal of a democracy and of the respectable
workman. Women wanted their children to get ahead through literacy.
The White collar class was growing by leaps and bounds.
The democratic ideology and rhetoric were crucial
to universal public education in the last analysis.
Mann believed that an educated population would be
a tame population, if only because it would be prosperous.
Virtuous activity, morals, were to be an integral part of
every child's program. He asserted that an educated people cannot
remain poor for long - an important observation that must be part
of a democratic ideology. That is, education is a determining
variable with regard to wealth. It might also be considered the most
important - the most independently operative - of the other values
conceived of as variables: power and respect, notably. Education
could and can bring increased shares of these. Yet it could
subsist profitably without them.
For a time a Protestant version of Christianity was taught,
without interference from law or courts. Ultimately,
Catholic, Jewish, liberal Protestants, atheists and agnostics
got the Bible out of the schools in most areas.
But it was a long struggle that never ended.
Millions of Americans never ceased to believe that
governments should preach their particular brand of religion.
Most likely this would be an anti-papal Protestantism
of the most general kind, considering the lack of
accord among Protestant denominations. In America
the conglomerate of interests surrounding the schools finally
settled almost everywhere into a stable truce - no Bible.
The U.S. Census for the year 1880 is cited sometimes for the figure
that by then 78% of the total population and 91% of the White
population could read and write. That might mean 65% and 75% of
the total people. But even so, the figures are incredible. I doubt that so
many people could make a sign other than "x" for anything besides
their own name. Possibly half of the numbers would be acceptable.
That is, less than half the White population could read advertisements
and hymn books, and almost none of the Black and Red and Hispanic
population, which would give us an overall figure of perhaps 30%
literacy. That was not bad, but neither was it good.
Here as elsewhere along the spectrum of social concerns, the
dominant groups of Americans knew what ought to be done, but
were too individualistic, busy with other things, and racially,
religiously, and ethnically too prejudiced to do it.
In those times Harvard was a hospice for Unitarians.
There was not much to be said otherwise about
its educational mission. For want of competition
it perforce turned out a large fraction of the literati and
cultural leaders of the country. The student body was socially
benighted. Students gave considerable attention to forming exclusive
cliques, discriminating against the poorer classes, displaying family
distinctions, putting down women, and discovering the
latest fashions from London.
They could on occasion provide a mob to harass abolitionists and
Democrats. They hissed down Senator Charles Sumner, the
quintessential Harvard man, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, when they
appeared to lecture against slavery. (Stephen Foster was similarly
treated at Dartmouth, one of many instances everywhere.) In 1864,
no man of the Harvard or Yale boat crews entered the Army after
graduation. Harvard men could also riot on account of bad food,
antagonistic professors, rote learning, fellow students undergoing
"unjust" punishment, and the usual unconscionable rules of
institutions. A revolt of 1823 was especially grave, but had small
effect save for some expulsions.
Colleges nourished few social reformers on campus,
although some of the great reformers had schooled there.
At Lane Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Cincinnati,
there appeared the first student political leader,
Theodore Weld. He was a charismatic man who,
before they could stop him, had conducted soul-searching meetings at
the college and had brought a number of sons of slave-holders to
denounce the institution. The group was strong, older on average than
other college students elsewhere, and readied for action.
When the Lane trustees and faculty asked them to hold off political
action until they had graduated, they refused, set up separately, and
declared the issue one of free speech as well:
"Proscription of free discussion is sacrilege!
It is boring out the eyes of the soul...,"
and went to join the Oberlin College student body. Oberlin, already
nearly radicalized, now moved strongly to the center of anti-slavery
agitation among the colleges of the nation. Like-minded students
came from other schools, Phillips Andover Academy and Marietta
College, but not the fancy schools of the country.
In what might well be famed as America's greatest marriage,
comparable, say, to the marriage of the British writers,
Leonard and Virginia Woolf, a century later,
Theodore Weld became the husband of Angelina Grimke.
Princeton students were agitated by the same issues that aroused the
Harvard men. They were more destructive, burning down their main
building and library on one occasion, other buildings at other times.
Bringing a slave along to school was a Princeton practice (it had a
strong Southern contingent); liberating him upon graduation was
another, certainly superior infinitely to the usual high-jinks.
Not until 1910, in a politically turbulent period nationally, did
Harvard students set up a socialist club to consider and take
positions on large national and world issues.
Harvard intellectuals were subjected ante-Bellum
to a large Germanic influence in philosophy and science,
which jacked up the intellectual and creative level considerably.
Transcendentalism, philosophical idealism and
even pragmatism ( a reaction) might not have come about,
were it not for the influence of Goethe, Hegel, and Fichte.
They were a relief from English philosophy, so dry and empirical.
They also relieved the earlier Germans, Kant and the Enlightenment
rationalists, whose work had landed in America earlier.
Notably these two waves of German philosophy took
each a political generation to get to America and
exert their full impact. Also noteworthy
is the snubbing of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,
as their work began to appear.
The prototypical proponent of a pragmatic point of view,
Charles Sanders Pierce, was the son of a Harvard Professor.
William James went to school in this period, where, under Pierce,
he began the process of creating pragmatism,
using his new-found, German-based experimental
psychology as a control over his ventures into the sociology of
religion. He it was who gave the most vivid
definitions of democracy: democracy, the process of giving one
group what it is hollering for, then responding to the reactive
hollering from another group, and so on indefinitely.
(One notes here the essentially pragmatic method of
not asking for absolute truth and ideals,
but determining what should be done by observing the
consequences of what has just been done.)
The year 1836 saw the beginnings of what became the
Transcendental Club, an intellectual circle meeting here and there in
the Boston area to discuss the most important universal problems.
The term transcendental implies a world spirit tying in everything,
a denial of the material and rational as ultimately productive
of the best and most lasting effects.
At least a dozen top-flight American writers and
reformers had a hand in the proceedings.
They published a magazine, The Dial, which brought them
fame and attention in distant parts.
Chief transcendentalist was Ralph Waldo Emerson,
who edited the Little Review.
He said that "whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist," and
"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after one's own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of a crowd
keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
He wished to down-play all the statistics of production and wealth,
and called nations but collections of mobs. He demanded a stop to
"boyish egotism, hoarse with cheering for one side, for one state."
He asked that America become a nation of world-servants.
He called the Native American Party (the Know-Nothings) a
dog in the manger. He believed in a new race of Americans,
compounded of many peoples.
He wrote polemical essays; he drew a large income from lectures.
He was America's best epigramist, an
inspiration to Friedrich Nietzsche;
he could strike an attitude better than anyone else;
he could go the heart of a matter.
He was a sounder of reform, not its engine.
Detailing precisely the steps he proposed taking, and
betaking them himself were not his forte;
he left popular agitation, organization, governing, to others.
Nonetheless, Emerson may unto this day have been the most
eloquent and correct definer of "the American Dream,"
of the ideal American person,
of the need for total respect for humanity and brotherly love,
of the contributions of the lowliest in society,
when compared with the most elevated,
of world peace and union.
Parker, Ripley, Thoreau, Brownson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller,
Sophia Peabody and her sister Elizabeth were of the group. A related
School struck up in St. Louis, more Germanic, and sent its signals
back East. So nationwide was their media coverage at the
time and in thousands of classrooms and millions of class-years to
come in America, that the transcendentalists have to be regarded as
one of the several top influences acting upon
American minds of high intensity.
(To say an intellectual influence exists is one thing,
to prove it another, viz the attempts to show effects of the much
heavier television immersion of young American minds.)
The total number of intellectuals was then minute,
if only because higher education was so rare;
only one or two out of a hundred of the Boston population
attended college in the 1830's and 1840's.
New England women did catch up with the men in
literacy at this time, although they had no chance at a
The period saw a fruitful re-connection of England with America.
The history of Anglo-American influences may need revision:
for now we had both a heavy English immigration resuming,
about 600,000 of a new sort of
non-American, revised Englishmen of the working classes,
and a new set of cultural bridges among the cultural elite.
The flow of ideas and personages had never been
so large and consequential.
The Unitarian sect was a nuclear factor
with its atoms revolving wildly between the two countries,
engaged in trading goods and ideas.
Intermarriage became more common.
Joseph Priestley, 1733-1804,
was discoverer of oxygen, an experimenter with electricity,
a clergyman, and a political radical - also a
founder of Unitarianism, who organized
a utopian colony on the Susquehanna River.
Harriet Martineau was not just any writing traveler;
she was of a highly engaged English Unitarian
political-religious-business network and family
that went back to the Dissenters of old. Now a
new New England connection was made that was
heavily influential in the intellectual development of the
United States, and, one must add, England as well;
most of the English Unitarians were colored
Interest in natural sciences was happily more widespread in
America than interest in the World-Soul.
Once more, as with idealism, German influence was strong,
especially in chemistry, biology, psychology, and geology.
The French were active in geology, astronomy, social psychology.
The British were strong in statistics, astronomy.
These are mere indications; what should be remembered
is that this was a fecund period for science.
Practically every science had a "Father of.." in this half century,
Cuvier, "Father of the Science of Paleontology," Auguste Comte,
"Father of Sociology." Alas, there were no fathers in America, only
sons and daughters, practically only sons. Beaumont might have made
the grade of "Father of American Physiology"
when in 1833 he seized the opportunity of
gazing through a glass into the stomach of an injured
Canadien lumberjack, and meticulously detailed the
Americans did somewhat better in inventing things, although the
notion of the Yankee inventor is more mythical than real. There was a
host of tinkerers, improvers, clever improvisors, connectors,
appliers, handymen, jacks-of-all-trades, all summing up to an
advancing tide of technology and industry, but of fundamental
inventions and discoveries, what do we have: the eternal Eli
Whitney with his cotton gin; Alonzo Phillips and the friction match,
1836; Samuel Colt and the revolver, 1836; Samuel F.B. Morse
and, independently, Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke of
England, the telegraph, 1837; Charles Goodyear and the
vulcanization of rubber (with some counter-claims); Walter Hunt
and the safety pin, 1849; Cyrus McCormick and the mechanical
reaper (he had some justified patent problems); Jacob Perkins and the
mechanical refrigerator, 1834; Elias Howe and the sewing machine,
The French Revolution and Napoleon developed the sciences of
large-scale organization and logistics in military and civil
administration. In America, corresponding moves took place: the
Du Pont de Nemours explosives company was set up by French
refugees; John Hall and Simeon North mass-produced firearms;
Alexander T. Stewart opened the first department store,
a French invention, in 1846. In the
USA, however, the federal and state governments were
non-functional compared with the now highly centralized
France and Prussia.
Overall and in the Northeast especially, an age of technology
loomed up. The American Journal of Science issued forth in 1819;
Yale and Harvard set up science schools; the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology was founded; the United States patent office was
systematized and became fully operative. The great Mesabi iron
range at the western tip of Lake Superior in Minnesota was
discovered. Ether began to be used in surgery. Bigger and better
bridges and railroad locomotives were built.
The industrial iron age was well along.
In all such affairs the United States was on the trailing edge of
Western Europe. The USA was tied to Europe and to a lesser degree
to the rest of the world. It was a great thief of ideas and methods. It
could figure out how to use them; it was productive. It let other
people steal from itself - a wonderful virtue - unless you were to
regard it as sheer carelessness; still, if you spend
too much time on guard, you get little done.
The myth of equality conjures a myth of inventiveness.
A perennial favorite plot has been
"the superb creation of a reputed blockhead."
Most Americans believed that genius crouches everywhere.
They also believed training and education not to be essential.
From a hovel or a flat would emerge the genial talent.
Inventions would flow therefrom.
Given the capacity of Americans, particularly of the Northeast and the
Midwest, for frenzied pursuit of mechanical goals, it would not take
long to come abreast of Europe. In Latin America, material resources
and cheap manpower were available but little else, and the Iberian
Peninsula, their chief European inspirator, had long been in a
technological drowse. To the North, where attention to Europe was
keen, ideology, material resources, interest in and flexible use of
capital investment, and both skilled and cheap manpower were
coalescing to the same end, an industrial democracy.