A strong argument can be made that the kind of thing that cultural conservatives hate about Liberalism is really at the heart of what made the country interesting and dynamic in those first decades of the American experiment. The static, community-centered, face-to-face society conservatives celebrate was very consciously rejected by the non-elites in that early generation precisely because it preserved the privileged society in which the pre-Revolutionary elites had unfair advantages. The personal, face-to-face society was more characteristic of the monarchical pre-Revolutionary ethos than that of the era after the Revolution when the unruly westerners insisted that democracy replace the oligarchy the eastern elites assumed would continue to shape American society.
For a new democratic equality ideal took shape in the early Republic: the ambitious American aspired not to some elite status--to be the "gentleman" who no longer had to work to support himself and his family, but to be an independent thinker, well-informed, politically involved, clever and resourceful in practical matters, hard working. And, sure, making money was important, but for a time, at least, wealth did not determine status. The main thing was not to be dependent, that is, to be self-reliant.
But dependency made the old monarchical system work. In the pre-Revolutionary system of dependencies everyone was part of an intricately woven, interdependent hierarchy in which everyone knew his place. In the old system, it was all about a web of face-to-face relationships; in the new system it was all about atomized, independent, individual exchanges. As Gordon Wood points out, this was supported by the introduction of paper money which replaced the old system of personal, face-to-face credit issued by the gentry to people whom they knew and judged trustworthy:
When "exchange" became the primary element of the economy. . . , then paper money became more important. "The rapidity and quick succession of exchanges" required increased quantities of money, and this paper money had democratizing effects. James Madison, like gentry creditors everywhere, may have earlier condemned paper money as destructive of "that confidence between man & man, by which the resources of one may be commanded by another." But now many were extolling that same destruction of confidence between one man and another, for such confidence was simply another name for authority and dependency. In a traditional intimate society it had been possible for a gentleman with a reputation and property to deal with everyone personally. But, said the physician Erick Bollman . . . in 1810, gentlemen could not relate to people in such a personal manner anymore. When they wished, for example, to buy a turkey from a farmer, they could not say, as they had used to, "I own the big house at the corner of Ninth and Chestnut Street," and expect the farmer to tip his cap an deliver the turkey on credit. Now the farmer will say, "What is that to me!" Proprietary wealth, conspicuous property, personal reputation, and genteel authority did not matter as they had in the past. What the farmer wanted now was ready money, and it did not matter from whom it came: "I want a dollar" says the farmer, "or else you cannot have my turkey." Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 339-40.
Paper money was democratizing because with it one man's dollar was as good as another's. Exchange did not require being part of a local network of face-to-face relationships in which your reputation, good or bad, mattered in the transaction. Was something lost in this destruction of the old intimate economics? Yes--in fact, it's what southern elites always bragged about retaining in southern society. "We have personal relationships with our poor whites and slaves; we understand one another: We're not coldly impersonal like those money-grubbing Yankees." But the exhilarating American experiment was all about freedom, and what that meant, at least in the North, was freedom from embeddedness in the old vertical system of dependencies. And capitalism was the primary engine for the destruction of that old system of face-to-face relationships that cultural conservatives get so nostalgic about.
This was a significant shift from the English system replicated in America in which everyone knew his place in the hierarchy. Get hold of the Cary Grant movie "The Howards of Virginia" which provides an easily accessible portrayal of the old system living uncomfortably with the emerging new. And you can't understand what's going on in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice if you don't have some sense of how the old system worked. D'Arcy's advice to Bingley to dump Elizabeth's sister Jane was just common sense because of the Bennets' lower-gentry status--too big a jump for her, stooping too low for him. And later how shocking was the idea of Elizabeth's becoming the mistress of Pemberly?--an unthinkable jump from lower gentry to the pinnacle of the landed aristocracy. Just not done.
This was the early 19th-century's fantasy novel. It shows what ambitious English men and women aspired to--to climb vertically in the traditional aristocratic, face-to-face class hierarchy. For Americans the fantasy was entrepreneurial--to become a millionaire, as the Cornelius Vanderbilt story exemplified. Vanderbilt hated the old aristocrats.
Here's Wood on the subject:
In the end, no banks, no government, no institutions could have created the American economic miracle of these years. America suddenly emerged a prosperous, scrambling, enterprising society not because the Constitution was created or because a few leaders formed a national bank, but because ordinary people, hundreds of thousands of them, began working harder to make money and "get ahead." Americans seemed to be a people totally absorbed in the individual pursuit of money. . . .
The American," foreigners said, "is always bargaining; he always has one bargain afoot, another just finished, and two or three he's thinking of. All that he has, all that he sees, is merchandise in his eyes." English travelers were stunned to see Americans selling their landed estates in order to go into trade--the reverse of what Englishmen sought to do. [The English aspirational fantasy was to be Master or Mistress at Pemberly] (Wood p. 326)
We Americans now think of D'Arcy's first attitude as insufferable snobbery, and perhaps a more affable if patronizing show of manners to his social inferiors would have reflected better on his "character", but his attitude simply demonstrated how people in the old system were acculturated to think. It was as true in America before the Revolution as it was in England. The revolution in the title of Wood's book refers to the broad-based American rejection of all that after the war in a way that surprised and shocked the gentlemen founders who expected the old hierarchical system to remain intact. Wood suggests that America as it actually evolved after the Revolution was, from the perspective of the founders, largely an unintended consequence:
This democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or expected. No wonder, then, that those of them who lived on into the early decades of the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought. Although they tried to put as good a face as they could on what had happened, they were bewildered, uneasy, and in many cases deeply disillusioned. Indeed, a pervasive pessimism, a fear that their revolutionary experiment in republicanism was not working out as they had expected, runs through the later writings of the founding fathers. All the major revolutionary leaders died less than happy with the results of the Revolution. (Wood p. 365)
The founders had more in common with Jane Austen's world than with the crude, commerce-driven energies that characterized Cornelius Vanderbilt's. They (the Federalists more than the Jeffersonians) fantasized a future American Republic that would be a lot like the Roman Republic in which the rich, "noble" senatorial class dominated political life. But they unleashed democratic energies that destroyed that fantasy and the social order in which it subsisted. The new Democratic order was largely structured by market relationships, not face-to-face relationships. But . . .
Even Jefferson, sanguine and optimistic as he had always been, was reduced to despair in his last years. . . . He hated the democratic world he saw emerging in America--a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity that he thought he had laid to rest. . . .
But Jefferson lived too long [died in 1826], and the future and the coming generation were not what he had expected. Jefferson was frightened by the popularity of Andrew Jackson, regarding him as a man of violent passions and unfit for the presidency. He felt overwhelmed by the new paper-money business culture sweeping through the the country and never appreciated how much his democratic and egalitarian principles had contributed to its rise. Ordinary people, in whom Jefferson had placed so much confidence, more than had his friend Madison, were not becoming more enlightened after all. (Wood p. 367)
Old-system gentlemen like the founders were dismayed at what they saw as an orgy of greed and self-interest. They feared the country would devolve into chaos--without the old system and the old values, what would hold the country together? Well it became clear as the American experiment moved further into the 19th century:
It was inevitable, therefore, that many came to conclude that this unruly society could tie itself together only by bonds that were in accord with the realities of American freedom and pursuits of happiness. Nothing less than interest itself--that "most powerful impulse of the human breast" --would do as an adhesive force in this dynamic, busy society. . . . They could not be controlled by force, or else they would have no liberty. But appeals to virtue could not contain these busy people either. Only interest could restrain them. Americans govern themselves, they said, because it was in their interest to do so. The desire to make money and get ahead helped them to develop habits of self-control. "The influence of money is wonderful, and the mind changes as the means of acquiring it are presented. But the 1830s Tocqueville thought he saw what was holding this divers, rootless, restless people together. "Interest," he concluded. "That is the secret. The private interest that breaks through at each moment, the interest that, moreover, appears openly and even proclaims itself as social theory." . . . (Wood p. 336)
According to French theorist Comte Destutt de Tracy
. . . the United States was "the hope and example of the world." There in the new Republic, he said, commerce had found its full identity with society. Indeed, commerce was society. "Society consists only in a continual succession of Exchanges," and thus "commerce and society are one and the same thing." . . . "Commerce, that is exchange, being in truth society itself, it is the only bond among men; the source of all their moral sentiments; and the first and most powerful cause of the improvement of their mutual sensibility and reciprocal benevolence." And nowhere more than in republican America had commerce been allowed such a full and fair play.
America, at a stroke it seemed, had overturned two millennia of Western history.
Market relationships defined social relationships--the old hierarchical, deferential society had been destroyed, and with it any hope of classical republican virtue shaping the new society. This is striving spirit of interest, to get ahead, is the essence of America and fundamental to understanding the American soul and its equality mythos:
If everyone in the society was involved in money making and exchanging, then to that extent they were all alike, all seeking their own individual interests and happiness, "The market house, like the grave, is a place of perfect equality," said Philip Freneau in bitter derision. But he was right. All this commercial activity did promote equality, yet not, of course, equality of wealth. Quite the contrary; wealth was far more unequally distributed in the decades following the Revolution than it had been before. Nonetheless, early-nineteenth-century Americans felt more equal, and for many of them that was what mattered. (Wood p. 340)
But the inequality in wealth was the fly in the ointment that would destroy this early celebration of democratic equality. This celebration could only last so long as it was possible for most Americans to be, or to aspire to be, self-reliant and economically independent. Industrialism and the new wage slave system destroyed that possibility for most Americans. And it was just a matter of time before the captains of these new industries constituted a new class of oligarchs that would dominate political and social life. But in the decades before the Civil War, except in the South, there was no real oligarchy in place--at least no oligarchy that had the kind of control that the new oligarchs would obtain at the end of the century. For a time most white Americans could truly believe that they were, or could be, free and equal citizens.
What are the takeaways here? First, that some nostalgic view of a stable, Shire-like, community-centered United States is largely a fiction. Early America, even in the urban East, was very like what we think of now as the rough-and-tumble wild west. The Revolution unleashed powerful, commerce-driven energies which largely destroyed the old social order and its traditional pieties and authorities. What we have come to think of as "traditional values" were largely invented in the early 19th century, and are a bizarre amalgam of free-market capitalism with evangelical Christianity, neither of which had much to do with the vision of the founders, who despaired as it became clear that economic "interest" and not gentlemanly republican virtue would largely shape the future of the country.
The American ideal held that citizens would be self-reliant and economically independent, free from the dependencies of the intensely hierarchical societies of the precolonial era that continued to dominate society in England. Foreign visitors to the United States were often shocked at how ordinary working Americans did not know their place, and that was because these Americans did not think that people richer than they were any better than they. The early days of the Republic were largely about the widespread rejection of the old-world status system determined by hereditary wealth.
The American ethos was one in which everyone was expected to "get ahead" and the opportunities abounded for anyone with a lick of sense and an ounce of ambition to do it. Getting ahead meant going into business for oneself as a merchant, tradesman, artisan, or farmer. Independence and equality were primarily rooted in that ability to make your own life without the benefits of inherited wealth, family connections, and the patronage system that determined status and the chances for success in the old system. Externally imposed social order or restraints were minimal. Social order largely derived from the discipline of the market and by an individualistic, conscience-centered, evangelical Christianity.
Sound familiar? This imagination of America is at the heart of the Tea Party movement. It doesn't have much to do with the founders' republican vision, and it doesn't have much to do with reality as it exists in America today, but these ideas define deep themes in the American soul, and in confusing times we revert to them for want of a better way to think about who we are and where we are going.
The country's center of gravity for a while did not lie with the very wealthy, but with the prospering, self-reliant, property-owning middle. That was the ideal, and for a while it seemed as though it had some relationship to reality, but the emergence of the cotton oligarchs in the South and the industrial oligarch's in the North changed all that, and by 1900 the ideal no longer bore any relationship to the reality of American society. The fears of the Jeffersonians had become realized, and Whiggish, idealist elites and populists joined forces in a new Progressive movement to redress the balance in what eventually emerged as the New Deal compromise that accepted that Bigness was our future, and that Big Business required Big Government to keep it in check if there was any hope of preserving either political or economic equality in this country.
The second takeaway: This early 19th-century mentality forms the foundation for the commonplaces of the Tea Party movement and are an essential part of the American mythos. It's this aspect of the Tea Party movement that must be appreciated and respected by serious people on the Left. It's a mythos that is inadequate to deal with the complexity of our life now, but it has elements that we all should be able to work with to build something new. For me it's a question of who will own that mythos--the forces of regression or the forces that will move us forward.
None of us can stand against the tsunami force of historical change, but that does not mean we are simply to be swept away by it. We must learn to ride the wave and to use its energies, and to become skilled in that we have to be resourceful and adaptive, and to me that means we need to rely less on what is outside and more on our own interior resources. The architecture of society does not matter so much as the architecture of our souls. And the architecture of our souls does not depend on society's promoting virtue so much as conservatives want us to think. We have one another, we have access to the great souls of the past, we have grace. That's plenty to work with, and working with all three has been what the American experiment at its best has been about from the beginning.
[This is a revised and mush shortened version of an essay original posted in September 2010]