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When America Was Transformed

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Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson; aquatint by Michel Sokolnicki, after a portrait by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, early 1800s

Far too many congressmen were ignorant and unlearned, complained Benjamin Latrobe, President Jefferson’s surveyor of public buildings, in 1806. Philadelphia and its suburbs, Latrobe said, had not sent a single man of letters to Congress. Well, it was true that one representative was a lawyer—though he was of “no eminence”—and another was a bank clerk. But others were “plain farmers.” And making matters worse, one county had even sent a blacksmith to Washington—and another a butcher.

As Gordon Wood observes in his magisterial new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, that same butcher went on to use his congressional franking privileges to mail his linen home for laundering. At least it was not a totally egregious abuse, his detractors admitted, since he seldom changed his shirt. President Jefferson once invited the butcher-turned-congressman to dine at the White House. When the guests seated around Jefferson’s elegant table were served a scrawny-looking leg of mutton, he forgot his new position and blurted out that he would never have sold such a sorry specimen in his stall.

Latrobe recognized that he was witnessing the twilight of the “ideal rank” of gentlemen who had led the Revolution, drafted the Constitution, and created a great republic. He granted that there were “solid and general advantages” to the new egalitarian society, but he still had to swallow hard. “To a cultivated mind, to a man of letters, to a lover of the arts, it presents,” he sighed, “a very unpleasant picture.”

And yet this was the democratic society that America’s gentlemen- founders—Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and John Jay among them—bequeathed to the next generation. Today we may still be awed by their brilliance, their political ingenuity, the sheer magnitude of their achievement. Well-to-do, privileged, well-educated in Enlightenment thought, they were the social and intellectual leaders of their colonies. But they were also civic-minded men who accepted the political burdens and responsibilities that came with their elevated social status, sacrificing private interests and personal happiness for the Revolution and the cause of independence and freedom.

Within a few decades, however, that kind of visionary and courageous patrician political elite would fade in importance, displaced by butchers and tradesmen wearing the plain shirts, leather aprons, and buckskin breeches of ordinary men. Though America would never again have a generation of leaders of the intellectual caliber of the Founders, we gained something more valuable, a relatively egalitarian culture and a democratic society.1

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson viewed with enthusiasm the displacement of the old gentry by new men who were, as the Virginia businessman Roger Atkinson wrote, “not so well dressed, nor so politely educated, nor so highly born.” They were “the People’s men (and the people in general are right). They are plain and of consequence less distinguished,…less intriguing, more sincere.” Jefferson, Wood writes, believed that the common people had a stronger moral sense than educated gentlemen. If you pose “a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he wrote, the ploughman, uncorrupted by “artificial rules,” will decide it as well. While the elitist Federalist Party of Washington and Hamilton worked to tie the young nation’s leading commercial interests to the government in order to create a powerful nation-state, Jefferson and Madison’s Republican Party championed the enterprising “middling” people who lived by manual labor.

But the year before he died, Jefferson felt lost in a nation that seemed overrun by business, banking, religious revivalism, “monkish ignorance,” and anti-intellectualism. “All, all dead,” he said in 1825, as he looked back on his old friends, distressed to find himself alone amid a new generation “whom we know not, and who know not us.” The Founders’ revolutionary words about equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, along with their bold actions, had unleashed a democratic tide—one so strong that within a few decades many of them found themselves disillusioned strangers living in an egalitarian, commercial society, a society they had inspired but not anticipated.

A new generation of Americans was emerging. What kind of politics, economy, culture, and civil society did they create? How far did they stray from the vision the Founders had bequeathed to them? These are some of the questions that Wood explores in his wide-ranging and engaging book, the latest volume in the impressive Oxford History of the United States. Wood focuses on the transformative period between Washington’s presidency and the end of the War of 1812. His exuberant panorama of a dynamic nation in the midst of dramatic change is informed by his immense scholarship and deep insights not only into the meaning of the American Revolution but also into American character, values, myths, leadership, and institutions. Empire of Liberty builds on the themes of his previous work: The Creation of the American Republic, winner of the 1970 Bancroft Prize, which explored the ideas that fostered the Revolution and the making of the Constitution; the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, his groundbreaking 1991 study of the triumph of a young rambunctious democracy over the remnants of a traditional monarchical society and, most poignantly, over the Founders’ idealistic dreams of a classical republic; and his incisive portraits of the Founders in Revolutionary Characters (2006).2

Rip Van Winkle, the amiable, indolent farmer of Washington Irving’s popular 1819 tale, fell asleep before the Revolution and dozed for twenty years. When he awoke he was bewildered to find himself in a society that was all but unrecognizable. Not only had his quiet village become larger and more populous, but even more disconcerting to our hero, who had an aversion to all kinds of profitable labor, everyone appeared to be working. “There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.” Nor could he understand the new language, a “babylonish jargon” that people were speaking—a dialect full of words like “rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress—liberty.”

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the United States had become a giant continental republic, with eighteen states, five territories, and a population of nearly ten million people, many of whom were migrating westward. Americans—85 percent of whom had been born after the Revolution—were breaking social and geographical barriers, becoming more enterprising than they had been in 1789.

They were also more self-confident. Far from seeing themselves on the periphery of history and culture, Wood writes, Americans came to view themselves as cast into the center. Instead of looking eastward to the great European metropolises for culture and inspiration, they looked westward, across their own expansive continent. So exhilarating were the memories of their world-historic Revolution that Americans transformed their old feelings of cultural inferiority into ones of superiority. “We see with other eyes,” boasted Thomas Paine. “We hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts….” They viewed their geographic isolation as a key advantage, for it fostered creativity and a self- reliant spirit. “Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and execute,” wrote Jefferson in 1787, “to find means within ourselves and not to lean on others.”

Major industrialization and urbanization had not yet taken place—indeed there were only five cities in the United States with populations over 25,000. But Wood observes that Americans had the heady sense that they were living in a forward-moving and dynamic epoch. And since the French Revolution strangled itself in the violence that led to Napoleon’s self-coronation as emperor, the United States could claim to offer the only successful example of republicanism and democracy. America was becoming, in Jefferson’s words, an “empire of liberty” in which all facets of society—from education and science to religion and banking—were undergoing exciting change.

Education was becoming democratized. Intellectuals everywhere drew up liberal plans for the widespread diffusion of knowledge, for they knew that the survival of their republic depended on literate, informed, and active citizens. They were less interested in releasing the talents of individuals than in converting men, as Benjamin Rush wrote, “into republican machines.” Some northern states supported public school systems, and twenty-four colleges were added to the nine that existed before the Revolution. Even though schooling in most states continued to be largely a private matter, the republican idea of public school systems persisted and would be realized later in the century.

Science came to be viewed not as the leisurely cultivation of knowledge by enlightened and inventive gentlemen-scientists, but as the utilitarian search for efficient and profitable ways to solve practical problems—from making cheese and removing seeds from cotton to developing steam engines and clocks. Popular forces were altering the religious landscape. Before the Revolution, most Americans were Anglicans and Congregationalists, but by the early nineteenth century, the majority were Baptists and Methodists. Itinerant preachers spread evangelical Protestantism across the nation.

Even the English language was being democratized. As Noah Webster argued, the English aristocracy used language not just to communicate but also to divide and exclude. The English they spoke effectively separated them from the ordinary, plain-speaking people in the rest of the country. But class distinctions would not be allowed to corrupt the American language. Americans had “the most pure English now known in the world,” he declared, and they could travel from Maine to Georgia and find themselves able to speak the same language to all.

The printed forms of communication—almanacs, novels, magazines like Niles’ Weekly Register, and especially newspapers—helped spread knowledge and information across American society. The press in the United States, writes Wood, became “the most important instrument of democracy in the modern world.” Newspapers fostered the participation of more and more citizens in the nation’s political and civic life. America had an unprecedented number of voluntary associations. There were societies for the promotion of the manumission of slaves and the relief of the poor, missionary and temperance societies, Bible, mechanical, agricultural, and peace societies as well as societies for the suppression of vice and immorality.

Most important, the democratic tide was transforming the worlds of business and politics. Banking, for example, was becoming less elitist. Hamilton’s Bank of the United States had been a bold and novel innovation in 1791, but it provided credit only to established merchants. During Jefferson’s presidency, farmers and entrepreneurs successfully put pressure on their states to set up scores of banks that would supply the credit they needed. By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, as one observer noted, it seemed that wherever there was a church, a tavern, and a blacksmith, one could also find a bank. “Hamilton’s insensitivity to the entrepreneurial needs of these ordinary farmers and small businessmen,” Wood acutely comments, “suggests how little he and other Federalists appreciated the real sources of the capitalist future of America.”

The character of political life was changing as well. Founders like James Madison had hoped that ordinary people would have the “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom” as their representatives; if not, he warned, no government could “render us secure.” Madison expected landed, well-educated, and wise politicians—men like the Founders themselves—to govern in a disinterested manner and in the name of the public good, transcending “local prejudices” and selfish interests. But self-interested “middling” men who toiled for a living did not just want to consent to be governed by their betters; they wanted to do the governing themselves.

  1. 1

    See Gordon S. Wood, “The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution,” in Leadership in the American Revolution (Library of Congress, 1974), pp. 63–89.

  2. 2

    Reviewed in these pages by Fred Anderson, September 21, 2006.

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