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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

This is July 7, obviously a few days after the official Independence Day, but we are so taken with the following idea of America, that we do want to share it with you.

Happy Fourth of July! Happy Independence Day!

When I'm not writing Geranium Farm articles, I work for Haver Analytics, a leading vendor of economic databases sold over the Internet to economists and financial institutions in the US and numerous other countries. Our staff of database managers and technicians are a multi-national bunch of "20s-and-30s" who also are from the US and numerous other countries. In the last few months, two of our colleagues have left us to return nearer their families in Germany and Norway. As a going-away present, it occurred to me, I should give them something that talks about America. Ergo:

In 1993, Gordon Wood, Professor of History at Brown University, won the Pulitzer Prize for a book that puts the American Revolution in a different perspective. It's not about the war or the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but about the dramatic social change that emerged from this Revolution. The orientation and organization of society shifted sharply from what had gone before, literally through all the history of civilization. Wood thus describes The Radicalism of the American Revolution*.

"After eighteenth-century Americans threw off their monarchical allegiance in 1776, they struggled to find new attachments befitting a republican people . . . . they eventually found democratic adhesives in the actual behavior of plain ordinary people . . . . To base a society on the commonplace behavior of ordinary people may be obvious and understandable to us today, but it was momentously radical in the long sweep of world history up to that time."

Any of us who've studied much world history can, I believe, realize the truth in this. Throughout the span of civilization, Western and Eastern, people from the ruler on down have been defined by their inherited "station in life": whose slave or serf are they versus who owed them service and tribute. The American Revolution unraveled this rigid structure. Class lines and professional divisions that had been carefully defined for generations were blurred and broken.

Repercussions are widespread, as indicated by titles of the book's chapters: "Loosening the Bands of Society", "The Assault on Aristocracy", "The Celebration of Commerce" and "Middle Class Order", among others. For the first time, labor and hard work could be viewed as inherently worthwhile and not simply a burdensome activity performed by the poor to provide goods and services for the rich. Trade was no longer looked down on by an elite, leisure class, who did no "work" because that was beneath them. Education became the province of almost anyone who wants to pursue it. The poor could rise above their initial lot, and, indeed, "middle class" became the center-post of the culture.

Clearly, this over-summarizes and over-simplifies. We, in fact, remain concerned about the poor and the weak, and with good reason. With the breakup of a formal hierarchy, not only can people climb, they might also fall. There is no societal patriarch now, whose role it is to take responsibility for those of lowly estate. Failure happens – even to the "best" of us, however that may be defined.

At the same time, as Wood lines out, we no longer have to micromanage the slightest interactions with virtually everyone in society: for example, we need not estimate how far down the street we are from some approaching person and doff our hats or bow at some specified distance depending on whether that person is the squire's footman or the squire himself. We can nod in respect or greeting to anyone we choose – or not nod at all.

We are not segregated by rank in society. For society as a whole, such segregation was a matter of course prior to the Revolution. But there were instances of blurred boundaries, of the mixing of people of varying ranks. In fact, the Early Christian Church is a prime example.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners that they are the "salt of the earth". It's often pointed out about the Disciples that they included fishermen, a tax collector, an accountant: they were not from the educated, moneyed, upper Temple classes. The Apostle Paul was a tent maker and periodically he had to stop preaching and make tents to earn money for his travels. Work was not beneath Paul. Early house churches encompassed mixes of people: slave and free, rich and poor, men and women, all in the same group socializing and sharing a Meal on the Lord's Day. A place where they were free to be whoever they were in the company of others of differing social levels. But these were relatively small clusters of people who associated in this way, and many kept very quiet about their Church membership when they were in other settings.

Small, then, but a foretaste of what would emerge in America's process of unbundling itself not just from the King of England, but from a style of life that was millennia old.

Consequently, in the early nineteenth century, a common man born in the rural Carolina piedmont could become a general of the Army and later President of the United States. In our own time, the son of divorced parents in a little town in Arkansas could become Governor of that state and later President of the United States. The owner of a 5-and-10-cent store in that same state could get ideas about how to sell massive quantities of merchandise at low prices and proceed to build the largest retailing company in the world. Not from "proper" or "established" society, any of these, but they and multitudes more have been able to move out and up from their original positions to achieve far more than anyone might have ever imagined. It was indeed a radical development.

Happy Birthday, then Americans, you ordinary car mechanic Cubs fan, you Wall Street portfolio manager raising your son by yourself, you two supermarket workers pulling crazy shifts to keep your rapidly growing kids in clothes that fit. We recently attended a family gathering with these last two; other family members include an IT manager, a university administrator, the business administrator for a nonprofit. We know another family where the husband roots for the A's while the wife prefers the Giants. Other couples where one is a Republican and the other a Democrat. All of these situations – a mix of professions in the same family and allegiances differing between husband and wife, to say nothing of inter-religious and inter-racial marriages – would have been extremely rare under the hierarchical society of former times. More, like my two young colleagues at Haver Analytics, almost no one lives anywhere near the towns where they grew up.

Aaron Copland caught the spirit well: "Fanfare for the Common Man". And using themes from African American spirituals and Native American music, Anton Dvorak composed "The New World Symphony", a classic emerging out of everyday experience. Amen.
*Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Press. 1991. Available from VivaBooks. Just click on the title.


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