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America the Bad?

Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

by Ronald T. Takaki
Knopf, 384 pp., $15.95

American history, according to the account at hand, is not a history of liberty, freedom, and opportunity. It is instead a history of repression, confinement, and renunciations. The appropriate symbol of its spirit is not a golden eagle but an iron cage. And the cage does not merely symbolize the fate of the racial minorities of color but the lot of the dominant whites who forged it as well. For they constructed the cage—or rather their multitudinous cages—for purposes of self-restraint as well as for the restraint of non-white minorities.

The War for Independence “liberated capitalism in America,” and after overthrowing the authority of the father-king, the white revolutionists “advanced a republican ideology rooted in the Protestant ethic and devised what may be called republican ‘iron cages”’ that were to provide “the cultural superstructure for a new bourgeois order.” The cages would help cure Americans of what John Adams called “their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits.” The ascetic discipline required would curb and inhibit their emotional life, make them fear all spontaneity, renounce pleasure, and shape up for the regimentation demanded by the market revolution facing them. It would also anticipate harsher requirements of coming economic revolutions: the crushing embrace of the factory, “the corporate ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic capitalism,” and toward the end of the century “an even more terrifying ‘iron cage”’ of “an imperialistic war and an irrational quest for power and destruction—a quest described metaphorically in Melville’s Moby Dick.” Freed of the king’s authority, each American had to become self-regulating, and so the need for “millions of cages” (a phrase of D.H. Lawrence’s).

Echoing Weber, Marx, and others, this does not sound unfamiliar. The basic metaphor of the “iron cage” was in fact borrowed from Max Weber. But how does it accommodate a treatise proclaimed by the subtitle to address race and culture? It is this accommodation that produces some of the more ingenious contributions of this work. William Shakespeare is credited with setting the stage in The Tempest with his Caliban, “a savage and deformed slave,” a “thing of darkness” belonging to an undesignated “vile race.” It is Mr. Takaki’s purpose to include all the undesignated “vile races” of America in “a comparative analysis of racial domination.” He is quite right that previous studies have “tended to isolate racism as a history of attitudes,” and have predominantly treated separately the oppression of various races. Beyond question, these oppressions and dominations are interrelated, as racism is interrelated with other attitudes. All these phenomena deserve and require comparative study.

Two examples of interrelated racial dominations were those which prepared the way for the market revolution. The red Indians were uprooted, deprived of their lands, and removed beyond the Mississippi, and hundreds of thousands of black slaves were moved into lands thus vacated and seized by whites in the Southwest to grow the cotton that was the key to internal and international trade. The Indians were expelled from white society and the blacks chained to it. Farther west and later on Mexicans and Asiatics—“Tawneys,” as Franklin had called Americans of color who were not black—were likewise chained to the white man’s purpose and subordinated to his will. They were of the “vile races” to be kept beyond the pale.

From the founding of the Republic, blacks and Indians were declared by whites to be incapable of self-discipline, the life of work, frugality, sobriety, and renunciation of instinctual needs that was essential to republican virtue. They belonged to the “child-savage” stage and represented what civilized whites were not and must not become. They were excluded from citizenship by the Naturalization Act of 1790. Whites constructed conceptualized “cages” of stereotypes for the excluded races, assigning such familiar characteristics as sensuality, laziness, stupidity, brutality, bestiality, and wickedness of many kinds. All these stereotypes tended to debase and degrade the people concerned and at the same time served to justify the harsh measures that whites inflicted upon them.

It is not the racial victims and their sufferings, however, but the white perpetrators, propagandists, and ideologues of this system of repressive discipline that are the central subjects of this work. They include an oddly assorted selection of major and minor figures from the Revolution down to the Spanish American War. Among them are Dr. Benjamin Rush, a leading figure of the American Enlightenment; Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson; Henry Hughes, a pro-slavery writer; Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of Justice Holmes; General George A. Custer of the “Last Stand”; Henry W. Grady, spokesman of the New South; Henry George, the Single Tax economist; Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, big navy champion; and Theodore Roosevelt.

Takaki’s emphasis in the biographical treatment of each figure is upon his contribution to the “iron cage” discipline he conceived for Americans, their progeny, and the races subject to their will. Dr. Rush pinned his faith upon medicine, “carrying forward the American Revolution” in his insane asylum with “ferocious determination to reform his patients, including his own son.” He relied heavily on “depleting” remedies of “bleeding, purging, low diet, and the tranquilizer chair”—the latter a rigidly immobilizing device of his own invention. Thomas Jefferson is presented as fiercely determined to assert control of head over heart, to cage “the strongest of all human passions,” and to be wary of women, “a particularly distressing threat to control and order.”

As another threat, blacks should be expelled from the “bowels” of white society by overseas colonization, and Indians removed to the remote West if they did not submit to white discipline. The “metaphysician of Indian-hating” is the name for Andrew Jackson, who provided “a philosophical justification for the extermination of native Americans.” His Indian policy and that of his country are repeatedly characterized as “extermination” and “genocide.” Cagebuilders all, these and their successors converted social institutions—asylums, almshouses, orphanages, schools, factories, professions—into prisons for the Protestant discipline required by the market revolution and later the corporate bureaucracy.

The appropriate symbol for these demonic white disciplinarians was Hank Morgan, protagonist of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Whisked magically back in time to Arthurian England, mechanic Hank regards the kingdom as “a sort of polished up court of Comanches,” upon which he imposed Yankee technology and weaponry much as his countrymen had similarly desecrated the Virgin Land of America. Hank Morgan transforms the pastoral beauty of romantic Camelot into a land of factories, modern cities, and mechanical gadgets. But the philanthropist turns out to be a mad misanthropist, the idealist a killer. Faced with a rebellion by an army of knights in armor, Hank throws a switch and electrocutes the mass of knights. He finishes off the rest with a Gatling gun and dynamites the whole society he has created. He then pronounces his victory a triumph of civilization over “savagery” and “white Indians.” The story, we are to understand, is “a frightening fable which exposed what was actually happening in nineteenth-century American society.” For example, there was Henry Grady’s New South, full of “resemblances between Twain’s fantasy and the industrial transformation under way in the land of Dixie.”

Pathological killers there undoubtedly were among whites of nineteenth-century America, along with assorted misanthropes, hatemongers, fanatics, paranoiacs, sadists, and outright psychotics. Many of them remained at large and some of them gained positions of influence and even posts of command. Quite apart from the contribution of pathological deviants (not to mention the rationalizations of intellectuals and politicians), however, violence was notoriously common in national life of that century. The rampaging frontier and the Wild West got most of the attention, but by no means accounted for all the violence. Industrial violence between capital and labor, between races and factions of labor, and between capitalists themselves was characteristic of the economy of the country. The hell-for-leather pace of territorial expansion, industrialization, and urbanization guaranteed a generous amount of chaos. Passed over with scarcely a mention in Mr. Takaki’s Iron Cages is the bloodiest holocaust of all in the western world of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. But that unpleasantness was largely one of whites against whites and therefore does not lend itself so readily to racial characterization.

The great whale for which Mr. Takaki has his harpoon poised throughout this quest is clearly the white whale. Those of other hues, with an occasional exception such as Booker T. Washington, who swam with the whites, are left untouched. Some rhetorical immunity is granted “the vast, surging, hopeful army of workers” of whatever race. But the malign traits on which this book incessantly dwells—rapacity, greed, cruelty, inhumanity, brutality, malevolence, demonic destructiveness—are racially related. When large groups of people are assigned characteristics, especially undesirable characteristics, according to their color, current usage would likely describe the practice as “racism.” This is surely an ironic and doubtless unintended twist to a book that stresses so heavily the injustice of racial stereotypes and the cruelties of racism generally.

Racial oppression is not the only feature, but for this book it is the dominant one in the cultural hegemony described. Using the concept as conceived by Antonio Gramsci, Takaki contends that the hegemonic world view of nineteenth-century America “served an important class function, for it provided the ideology necessary for the legitimation and development of the mode of production and the order of social relations in American society.” Quoting eclectically from a variety of thinkers, Takaki nevertheless appears to conceive of his study as fundamentally Marxist. Texts from Marx prominently head the chapters and other divisions of the book, and he is quoted liberally throughout. And yet an incongruous tone of the Jeremiad pervades the work, a recurrent lament for unrealized promises, for the ravaging of the pastoral Virgin Land, sometimes for familiar and universal features of the process of industrialization itself.

The ordeal of industrialization and whatever economic gains it may produce for a society have always come at terrible cost. Reckoned in terms of human suffering, social turmoil, and brutalized labor, the costs were appalling in this country as they have been elsewhere. To arrive at any balanced assessment of those costs, however, the American experience should be judged in comparison with that of England, which preceded the American ordeal, and that of Russia, which came after it. In neither case can the American record, as bad as it was, be said to suffer by comparison. To judge the record without this perspective is to arrive at a skewed assessment. It is also to risk identifying as national characteristics traits and experiences peculiar to no one nation. Similar distortions can result from assessments of the conquest of continents, the treatment of aborigines, the condition of slaves, the conflict of races, and the incidence of violence and brutality. No person of reasonable sensibilities would willingly claim identity with a country justly found uniquely capable of policies ascribed to America in all these matters.

Mr. Takaki tells us in the opening sentence of his preface that he “seeks to offer a comparative analysis of racial domination.” And so he has. But his comparisons, like those typically made by nineteenth-century Americans of North and South, are limited to the national boundaries and the races, classes, and dominations contained within them. He never ventures beyond the three-mile limit to draw comparisons with other countries and their experiences with aborigines, slavery, racial minorities, dominations, and “cagings” of mind and body. Such comparisons offer rich sources of illumination for the American experience in these matters.

For example, a glance at what happened to the aborigines south of the border and beyond in the wake of Spanish conquest should shed some light on what happened north of the border. What with two advanced civilizations completely destroyed and their populations decimated, and what with the native peoples of the Caribbean Islands virtually wiped out, comparisons beg for consideration, especially when the term “extermination” is used to describe American policy. The comparative fates of enslaved African people imported north and south of the border also deserve mention. Philip D. Curtin has pointed out the unparalleled increase of Afro-Americans in the United States. By the time of emancipation the number originally imported, fewer than a half million and less than 5 percent of the total brought to the Americas, had multiplied ten fold.

No other slave country so much as maintained a population of the number imported, and some could not produce half that number. After the slave trade ended, people of African descent declined steadily in most Latin American countries. Had they increased in Brazil, which imported eight and a half times the number taken into this country, at the same ratio to original imports as in the United States, they would have numbered 127.6 million instead of 17.5 million by the middle of this century. At the same ratio those of Cuba would have numbered 24.5 instead of 1.2 million, and blacks of the Caribbean Islands as a whole would have totaled 335.8 million instead of 9.6 million. In no way whatever does this justify slavery or the slave trade, anywhere, but it does suggest material for an analysis of comparative racial dominations.

It would seem only fair in a comparative study of racial violence to ask where the worst instances have occurred and with which of them American instances are being compared. Anti-Semitism goes unmentioned in Takaki’s pages. So far, America has escaped the great holocausts of racial violence that have swept other countries. Nothing in her record compares with the horrors of genocide in Germany and elsewhere during the Second World War, or the mass killings between Islamic and Hindu people after the war. The corpses in each country ran into the millions. More recently the domestic bloodbaths in Indonesia, and currently those in Vietnam and Cambodia, all with interracial aspects, claim their hundreds of thousands of victims. No special providence spares America from the escalation of a race riot into a race war, but it would at least seem worth noting that so far it has not happened.

In any discussion of cages, iron or otherwise, their uses and their sizes, their numbers and their location, a look abroad might lend comparative perspective. There is South Africa, to be sure, but there is also Russia, the Gulags, and the Wall. Such comparisons would lead to questions unwelcome to the characterization of American history found in Iron Cages. So long as the current mood of collective self-denigration and self-flagellation persists among Americans, however, works of this sort will find a public. If and when the mood passes one would hope a more balanced perspective on American history will prevail.


The Right Eagle February 7, 1980

America the Bad? February 7, 1980

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