- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Of course we know better. But to Yankee merchants, northern farmers, western plainsmen, all this is not a dream but a prophecy, a vision vouchsafed and often nearly achieved beyond the river and just past the next range of hills. In their hearts, the perfection of the social system is, if not at hand, just around the corner. Never, they believe, has there been such progress, in government, in science, in invention, in the moral order of life. As all peoples do, they see what they want to; they have distilled the useful but faintly impious age of reason into an age of improvement and propriety. Across the seas they have plowed a new promised land; symbolically their powerful divines call it a new Israel, a new Jerusalem, and the words of the Gospel fall easily from their lips as they name their children, the Ezekiels, the Jeremiahs, the Isaiahs, for the prophets of Jehovah. Scratch a Massachusetts man and you will find a being wrapped in a sense of his mission. The same Hand that guided Moses, and brought the barons to Runnymede, and preserved William Bradford in the wilderness, lies on them still. They believe in good and evil, not behaviorism, or complexes; id and ego to them are merely Latin pronouns. And if often they seem self-seeking, if they depart from the Path, yet the image floats before them. They hold the future in trust: it shall be true and righteous altogether.
It is a belief they do not hesitate to express, these Americans, in words like destiny and empire, and the seeming presumption either angers or amuses visitors from other lands. One such, an Englishman, comes one evening to supper in an American inn. The innkeeper, who is, to the visitor’s intense amusement, also the local general of militia, appears and in strident tones calls the diners to order.
“Gentlemen!” he cries, “We are a great people!” Then he reads the menu.
Another Englishman, stopping at an America« hotel, seeks diplomatically to find a conversational topic pleasing to the natives who surround him. Providence, he ventures, seems to have called on the two Anglo-Saxon nations to civilize the globe. Quickly an American brushes him and his Pax Britanica aside:
“Two nations! Guess there’s only one, stranger; going to annex that little island of yourn one of them fine days; don’t know how little Vic will like that, but got to do it, and no mistake about that!”
It is in America, as the stream of foreign visitors and commentators all notice in different ways, that a new society is being created. Everything is building and speculation, clatter and “go-ahead,” and a new language to express these things is springing into life. One genial financier tells Captain Frederick Marryat, the English traveller, that if he had taken up a certain speculation he would not only have doubled and trebled his money, he would also have “fourbled and fivebled” it. The American outlook seems to some to alternate between scorn for European ways and a feeling of having surpassed them. Are European marriages “arranged”? Well, none of that nonsense over here. Boys and girls, often quite unchaperoned, go about together in ways so free as to shock Europeans. The servant problem for the diplomatic set in Washington is impossible, quite impossible. No American, reports Harriet Martineau, will wear livery. Yet if the Americans disdain aristocracy, they use its language constantly. The words “fashionable” and “aristocratic,” noted Dickens with malicious glee, are always on the tongues of this upstart nation, describing the meanest village yeomanry or the least prepossessing boardinghouse. A surprising number of Americans, too busy to settle down, live in these remarkable establishments, on a greasy, vitamin-free diet to which only distance lends enchantment.
The contrasts, indeed, flabbergast many commentators—the boast and the fact, the prim and the uncouth, the slave and the free, side by side. The handful of stately buildings set down in Washington amid empty lots and frame shanties, the whole lining muddy “avenues” and “circles” that seem to mock the grandiose scheme of the city planner. The glorious words of the great Declaration—and the South’s “peculiar institution”! The railroad with the resounding name, ending with “and Pacific,” which so far goes ten miles! (Can either dream be fulfilled?)
Dickens could scarcely stand us. Visiting in the previous decade, he spared neither our feelings nor our pretensions. Passing through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he reported receiving, with what must have been thinly veiled disgust, some members of the state senate. One inundated the carpet with tobacco juice, another blew his nose with his fingers, and a third carefully explained to the novelist that this assembly of law-givers “corresponds to your House of Lords.”
America swarms with strange cults and movements that express the ferment of ideas. There are spiritualists, communists, phrenologists, mesmerists, Mormons digging tablets from the soil, fundamentalists. Feminists like Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and pantalooned Amelia Bloomer declaim against the rule of man, who either forces woman onto her ridiculous pedestal (in the South every woman is a saint, as every gentleman is an authentic descendant of a lord), or works her to death at a third of man’s wages.