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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.