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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:

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The First Generation of Americans

Each year at the anniversary of American Independence, Ways of the World visits that historical era with an eye to the key role of ordinary people.  The American Revolution was more than battles and big documents; it marked dramatic changes in the structure of society, in people’s relationships and in their day-to-day interactions with one another.

We sought this year to see how this reordering played out as the new country and its culture developed.  Recognizing that we had not read a classic statement of this, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, we thought that might be the way to go.  Our seeking brought us instead to a prelude of the years right before Tocqueville’s trip, which began in 1831.  So we focus on Inheriting the Revolution: the First Generation of Americans by Joyce Appleby.  She is professor emerita at UCLA and a former president of the American Historical Association.  The book is based largely on her study of people born from 1776 to 1800, sourced from autobiographies, contemporary press reports and other primary sources.

Originality and newness and flexibility are the main themes.  There had been a big war and the older people were conditioned by the necessary defenses they had had to put together.  The new, younger generation faced no such constraints; they were looking forward.  Their new orientation became manifest in some surprisingly basic aspects of living, as Appleby explains.

In these annual July-4th exercises, we never cease to be amazed at the historic reach of the American Revolution.  Here follow six significant kinds of changes that emerged early after it.  They concern a fundamental shift of power, influence and benefits from a limited predetermined elite to a vast populace exercising initiative.  At the same time, we will have to conclude with some comments about some people who were largely left out of all this.

1.  Politics and the popular press
By the 1790s, many more people were learning to read, and newspapers were expanding rapidly.  As marks affairs today, inquisitive reporters and commentators got into the workings of government and of leaders.  The process of governing was now out in the open, no longer conducted in closed rooms, hidden from the population at large; information was now available to almost everyone.  Appleby highlights the election of Jefferson in 1800 as a demarcation of the social ramifications of what was happening.  Social and political power were now uncoupled.  "[T]he colonial belief that authority should be exercised through the uncontested leadership of a recognized cadre of families” was "drowned in a tidal wave". [Appleby, page 6]

2.  Enterprise and expansion
The Industrial Revolution along with the end of the American Revolutionary War meant people could focus on going new places and making new things.  They were no longer preoccupied with military issues and could explore the vastness of the North American continent.  Agriculture and the family farm remained the primary way to make a living, but commercial interests developed to a substantial extent.  Steam engines and machine tools led to the growth of industry; as the variety of goods available increased, retailing expanded and all this needed financing, so banking spread as well.  Many new kinds of jobs opened up.  Extending the theme of spreading leadership, business ventures could be undertaken by anyone, not just members of certain favored families or those with government connections.

3.  Careers
Indeed, individuals could now make many basic choices about the course of their own lives.  “Where once sons had achieved manhood by emulating their fathers, more and more they were esteemed by carrying a torch into uncharted territory.” [page 21]  Notably, the very word “career” took on a new definition.  The Oxford English Dictionary shows that in 1580, it meant “a race course”.  But by 1802, it had come to describe “a person’s progress through life”.  [Cited by Appleby, page 270]

4.  Societal distinctions
“Mobility” now meant several things: movement away from the family home, geographic mobility even to another region, changing one’s profession, participating in and gaining influence in governing.  The product of these processes came to be known as the “middle class”, encompassing people with origins in both ends of the economic spectrum and generating a new emphasis on peer groups.  “Status”, “merit” and “virtue” were still important, but they took on whole new contexts.

5.  Intimate relationships
“The collapse of venerable hierarchies and the scattering of families” [page 22] meant people no longer had a pre-existing emotional support system; they had to be conscious of their emotional needs and seek out relatives and friends with some deliberateness.  In another sphere of intimacy, religious revivals imparted to church and worship an emotional character not generally experienced before in more formal worship settings.

6.  Voluntary associations
Society, of course, continued to be plagued with various problems.  Individuals who cared about specific issues of the day began to form volunteer groups to address them.  Appleby emphasizes temperance and urban charity among more secular issues, while the evangelical revivalist movements sent people on mission work.  These missions were sometimes foreign, perhaps to India, and some more local, such as to the Cherokees and the Chickasaws.  Anti-slavery organizations were formed.

So the young country grew and prospered with broad-based participation in leadership roles unknown in history before.

“Participation” was, of course, still not universal:  women and blacks were still restrained.  Women's roles evolved somewhat, though.  Many became literate, with some making writing careers.  Others became active in church-work or other voluntary groups; they became aware that they wanted and should have choices, not necessarily tied automatically to the men in their lives. 

Appleby is careful in many places to specify that the main beneficiaries of the constructive societal changes were "white men".  Blacks (many from the West Indies as well as Africa) were largely emancipated in the North, could own property and even vote in some locales.  But the Southern culture was different, remaining staunchly pro-slavery and retaining other hierarchical characteristics.  Part of this is tied to dependence on labor-intensive cotton-growing as European demand for the fabric expanded.  Without more study, we don't want to go on about this at length, but Appleby makes clear that the seeds of conflict over these racial differences were sown very early in our history as a nation.

We want to leave you with two thoughts in this July 4th Season of 2014.  First, much of the news of our day highlights failures and misgivings people feel about our government and society.  But we urge you to stop and put this in perspective.  The US has fostered a flexible, open lifestyle focused on mobility.  It's distinctive in millennia of history, that we have come, 238 years after Independence, to want to assure opportunities for everyone, whatever their background.  People who were prospering in 1800 were already starting to figure out how they could spread this prosperity.

Secondly, this spirit of widespread initiative and prosperity is readily evident to other people all around the world.  Some of them seem to hate us for it and plot our destruction.  But many others want to come and join in it.  We see the massive border problems of this moment and we struggle mightily over how to handle the hordes of illegal immigrants.  Surely this whole situation is being badly mishandled and the President perhaps did not anticipate the volume of people who would respond to his unilateral move in 2012 to let young people stay who arrived in the U.S. as dependent children.

But look at the statement those young people and their families are making.  What you and I have as lives here in the United States, flawed though our situations may seem to us, looks so great compared to what those families have now that they are willing to risk everything to come and be a part of it or send their children in the hope they can have a better future.

* * * * *
Joyce Appleby.  Inheriting the Revolution: the First Generation of Americans.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  2000.

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