4. A Northern World View: Yankee Society, Antislavery Ideology and the Abolition Movement

4. A Northern World View: Yankee Society, Antislavery Ideology and the Abolition Movement


Professor David Blight:
The other day I laid a–well, in part I laid a list
of pro-slavery arguments on you, and a lot of quotations to give
you a sense of the depth and breadth of pro-slavery ideology,
and I didn’t want to leave that entirely without tying up a knot
or two. Just consider this as a sense
of the scale of pro-slavery writing.
when slave-holding politicians–when the planter
elite of the American South–begins to organize
toward, at least toward,
some kind of separation and secession over this slave
society they want to protect, they are reading hundreds and
hundreds of pages about their system.
In 1855 an anthology of pro-slavery writings was
published in the South. It was about 450 pages long.
In 1860, that anthology was updated, particularly with the
works of George Fitzhugh, into a 900-page volume,
which was really in most ways only excerpts of pro-slavery
writing. And it was a work on the desks
of most secessionists. And I also didn’t want to leave
you thinking this was all about abstract ideology.
One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of why slavery
persisted, of why people defended it,
and why people went to war for it, came before the war,
in 1857, in a speech by the African-American woman,
novelist, writer, poet, Frances Ellen Watkins
Harper. In an 1850s anti-slavery speech
she said, among other things, this conclusion–in effect,
she’s answer the question now, “why has slavery boomed and
persisted and grows still?” And this is in the wake of the
Dred Scott decision. “Ask Maryland,” she says,
“with her tens of thousands of slaves if she is not prepared
for freedom, and hear her answer.
I helped supply the coffles, gangs to the South.
Ask Virginia with her hundreds of thousands of slaves if she is
not weary with her merchandise of blood and anxious to shake
the gory traffic from her hands and hear her reply,
‘Though fertility has covered my soul,'”–this is Virginia
speaking–“‘though I hold in my hand a wealth of water power
enough to turn the spindles to clothe the world,
yet one of my chief staples has been the sons and daughters I
send to the human markets.’ Ask farther south and all the
cotton growing states chime in, ‘We have need of fresh supplies
to fill the ranks of those whose lives have gone out in
unrequited toil on our distant plantations.’
A hundred-thousand newborn babies are annually added to the
victims of slavery,” said Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
“Twenty-thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the
plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a
thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel
the heart of humanity to lofty deeds.
So it might, if men had not found out”–and
here’s her phrase worth remembering–“a fearful alchemy
by which this blood can be transformed into gold.
Instead of listening to the cry of agony they listen to the ring
of dollars and stoop down and pick up the coins.”
A fearful alchemy–that’s a useful definition of slavery.
Why did an inhumane institution–of course not
everybody who defended it thought it was inhumane–but why
did that system survive, persist and grow? Because it was so damned
profitable. Last time I began with
Alexander H. Stephens’s famous Cornerstone
Speech in 1861, the famous passage by the
Vice-President of the Confederacy declaring slavery
the cornerstone of the Confederate Movement.
We go north today. We’re going to look largely at
the nature of Northern society. We’re going to look to some
extent today and mostly next Tuesday at the roots and origins
of an anti-slavery ideology, a growing anti-slavery ideology
in its many layered forms. But I want to begin today with
another passage, from the war years,
and ask now from a Northern point of view,
how do we get to Uriah Parmelee?
Now there’s a nineteenth century name for you.
Nobody’s named Uriah anymore. You know any Uriah’s? Uriah Parmelee was a kid who
grew up on a Connecticut farm, and the best I’ve been able to
determine his family was part of this market revolution.
They ended up moving to a small town and no longer engaged in
subsistence agriculture, if his parents had,
or his grandparents. And by means I don’t entirely
understand, Uriah Parmelee, in the spring of 1861,
was an Abolitionist. He was a Junior at Yale College.
He’d gotten caught up in Abolitionism and anti-slavery,
as young people get caught up in political fervor and
movements of their times, sometimes.
As soon as the Civil War broke out and Lincoln called for
volunteers in late April 1861, Uriah Parmelee dropped out of
his Junior year at Yale and he joined the first regiment he
could get into. There wasn’t one organizing yet
around New Haven or nearby in Connecticut so he went to New
York and he joined the Sixth New York Cavalry.
To his brother Parmelee confided, “I am more of an
abolitionist than ever now, right up to the handle.
If I had money enough to raise a few hundred contrabands and
arm them I’d get up an insurrection among the slaves;
told the captain I’d desert to do it.”
Nah. A lot of chutzpah in that
passage; he hasn’t seen any real war yet.
He wants to be John Brown, at that point.
He’s going to get himself a band of insurrectionists and go
down there and kill some slaveholders,
he says. Parmelee, in letters back home
to his parents, his brothers,
his sisters–and he wrote lots of them–he at first denounced
Lincoln’s government for its failure in 1861 and even into
early 1862 to come out against slavery,
to make it a war against slavery.
He denounces the government he’s serving.
In a letter in late 1861 from the front, “The present
contest,” he says, “will indeed settle the
question, for some years at least,
as to whether union or secession, the Constitution or
rebellion, shall triumph.
But the great heart wound, slavery, will not be reached.”
He’s angry, he’s pissed off, he wants the war to be against
slavery, and it’s not. He goes on in a letter in
spring 1862–the war still isn’t a war against slavery in any
official sense–and he writes home to his brother saying he
wishes he had the, quote, “moral courage to
desert,” because he no longer wants to serve this cause.
But he doesn’t desert. By March 1863,
he had concluded that emancipation would indeed be
achieved–this is now in the wake of Congress’s Confiscation
Acts in ’62, Lincoln’s preliminary
proclamation, the ultimate Emancipation
Proclamation as of January 1863–and by March of that
spring he’s convinced the war has transformed.
He refused a furlough to stay and fight.
He writes home, “I do not intend to shirk now
that there is really something to fight for;
I mean freedom. Since the 1^(st) of January it
has become more and more evident to my mind that the war is
henceforth to be conducted upon a different basis.
Those who profess to love the Union are not so anxious to
preserve slavery, while those who are opposed to
the war acknowledge in all their actions that its continuance
will put an end to this accursed system.
So then I am willing to remain and endure whatever may fall to
my share.” He was honored for bravery by
at least three commanding officers in numerous battles,
especially the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863;
he was promoted to Captain. He eventually switched;
his New York–this happened in many regiments in the Civil
War–it took so many casualties it ceased to exist–and he
switched to a Connecticut regiment and he served that
Connecticut regiment through the summer of 1864.
The great war of attrition in Virginia.
He survived the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of
Spotsylvania Court House, the Battle of Cold Harbor,
the entire Siege of Petersburg from August of ’64 all the way
until the end of March of 1865. He was killed on April 1^(st),
1865, at the Battle of Five Oaks–excuse me,
at Five Forks, just west of Richmond,
the last major engagement of the Civil War. And when you walk out today and
you go through Woolsey Hall, if you haven’t done this
before, you’ll note,
if you haven’t before, that that’s full of the names
of Yale College men who have died in war.
And Uriah Parmelee’s name will be right on your right,
as you’re walking through. He’s this high on my arm or
shoulder, and there’s his name. Dropped out,
Junior Year, to fight, to destroy slavery.
And he did, for four years, and died in the last battle.
But how do you get to Uriah Parmelee, a kid from
Connecticut, obviously bright enough or connected enough to
get into Yale, who gave all that up for
something he saw as a lot higher?
If you can come to understand a Uriah Parmelee–or better yet,
if you can come to understand young,
white, northern, Yankee, Anglo-Saxon,
Protestants, who often were very
contemptuous of Irish immigrants,
and even more contemptuous of black Americans,
who nevertheless believed the War of 1861 had to be fought,
and ultimately came even to support the destruction of
slavery–if you can understand why those Northern Yankees get
to that point, you really will understand the
Civil War. Uriah Parmelee had an
inheritance; at what level he exactly
understood it I can’t necessarily know,
although his letters are extraordinarily rich.
Now, in that Northern society–and here we’re using
labels pretty loosely, but so be it–the northern
states; and well I’ll leave the outline
up for the moment. No I won’t. Professor David Blight:
That’s a wonderful old painting from 1830 called “The
Yankee Peddler.” Everybody’s heard of Yankee
peddlers. They don’t come door to door
anymore unless they’re working for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Oops. [Laughter]
Well, or the Environmental Action Committee or the,
let’s see–never mind. What’s the Yankee peddler
peddling? Cloth.
Readymade, factory-made cloth for a woman, a housewife,
who isn’t making her own cloth anymore.
That’s the Market Revolution. There are a thousand ways to
see it, understand it and grasp it.
If the South was a slave society–and we tried to
demonstrate that last time, we tried to define that.
Although it’s not defined in that newspaper that you’re
reading back there in row twelve,
the Market Revolution is not reported in this morning’s
newspapers; actually it probably is,
the markets are going bad, although they went back up
yesterday. But this Market Revolution is
not reported in that newspaper, I would venture.
Sorry to interrupt you. But if the South was a slave
society the North was a market society.
It was a booming market society by the 1820s and 1830s.
It was beginning to be a market society even in the late
eighteenth century. The northern states by the
Antebellum Period–1820s, 1830s, 1840s–was beginning to
sort of hurtle toward a different future than what that
slave society was–perhaps–no, not really slowly–it too was
hurtling toward a certain future.
This market–this booming market society with its market,
commercial, consumerist mentalities,
and its belief–eventually, its faith in,
its defense of–free labor for the common man,
its kind of fanfare for the common man ideology,
would be something a lot of white southerners would actually
fear and be frightened by. What is the Market Revolution?
It’s the time in which–it’s not a single moment in time or
course, it’s a long process–but it’s the time in which long
distance commerce began to take hold,
because of transportation revolutions: canals,
roads, railroads in particular. It’s a time of technological
innovation, tremendous technological innovation,
so much technological change that half the time it frightened
people. In fact you can find all over
American culture in 1800,1810, even into the 1820s,
a lot of fear of technology. What is this thing, a telegraph?
Now today you probably don’t fear technology.
I still have a little bit of that, I’m still a little
nineteenth century in that sense.
I hate it when they tell me they want to buy me a new
laptop. Enough already.
I don’t care if it’s four years old, I don’t want another one. Don’t make me learn something
new with my machine. The Market Revolution was
driven, of course, by the growth of cities,
which became market centers and manufacturing centers.
Maybe more importantly, the Market Revolution is that
time in American history–that incredible time,
really, when you think about the scale of change–when
eighteenth century subsistence farmers who engaged in what was
always called, or we’ve always called,
mixed agriculture–that is, they grew all kinds of
foodstuffs, almost always for
themselves–when that kind of eighteenth century style farming
gave way to commercial farming, where farmers now produced cash
crops, for a much broader market.
A market on the East Coast if they were in upstate New York,
or out in Ohio eventually, and a market of the whole
world. It’s that period when
the home or the farm–still a majority of northern people by
the 1830s and 1840s were making their livings from
agriculture–but it’s a time when that home and farm became
its own domestic factory, where people began to produce
in their homes, for markets,
not for themselves. The vast multitudes were still
farmers, but they began to now buy goods, manufactured goods, readymade clothing and shoes,
cloth, candles, soap, all kinds of foodstuffs.
Stuff that the eighteenth century farmer made for him and
herself now you bought from a peddler or you bought from a
store in town. This all, of course,
leads to a change in what European historians taught us to
call mentalities, mentalité.
It brought about fundamental alterations, slowly,
in ways sometimes people didn’t even know it’s happening;
fundamental alterations in aspirations, in habits,
in activities, in conceptions and definitions
of work, and leisure. What is work and leisure now in
a society where you don’t have to produce everything for
yourself? It produced,
it would produce fundamental alterations in the conception of
labor. Who’s a worker?
What is labor? Is a laborer any more just an
individual, or is a laborer part of a collective problem,
part of a collective mentality, part of a collective movement
against a much greater force now called capital,
manufacturing, the company? It’s going to alter the very
idea of individual rights. We have a habit in this society
to think that individual rights, when they drafted the Bill of
Rights, was just laid down for us and
it’s just traveled through time and here they are.
Just go back and look at the founders.
It’s such nonsense. It’s ahistorical.
The very idea of individual rights got reshaped by the
Market Revolution. What do you have a right to now?
New shoes? It’s going to change the very
idea of mobility. Where can you go,
and how, by what means? It’s going to really
change–and this is absolutely crucial, indirectly,
in helping us understand this war that’s going to come down
the way–it’s going to change for a lot of northern–millions
of northern people, some of them now immigrants who
have come here with a clear purpose–that is,
to make a better life–it’s going to change their conception
of what they can give their children. And we’re going to hear a lot
more later on, next week, week after,
about free labor ideology. The idea that if labor is left
free then that common man always has a chance.
If the land isn’t taken up by large oligarchies–life
slaveholding class–then the small guy has a chance.
But rooted in free labor ideology is, among other ideas,
this notion of mobility. That a free laborer is a mobile
laborer, especially in a society like the United States that had
this thing called The West, the limitless–apparently to
them anyway–boundless West. Even such concepts,
such great American concepts–let’s call it that–as
self-reliance about which Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written
his greatest essay–I go read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
at least once a year. Just, I don’t know,
to feel better or something. It’s the quintessential sort
of expression of individualism, but it’s more than that.
But even an ideal like self-reliance–I can remake my
world, I can be anything I want–is changed by the Market
Revolution. It doesn’t mean people believe
any less in self-reliance, it’s just they keep seeing
evidence, they keep bumping into
realities that show them that in the face of the market now,
especially the boom and bust cycles of the market,
their individualism is not so powerful.
The Market Revolution would, on the level of ideas and
thinking and sort of common behavior,
would bring about a kind of combination of tremendous
optimism, possibly like we’ve never experienced since;
although you can find other moments in American history,
like the 1950s, where a kind of broad,
broad social optimism took hold of Americans.
It’s one of the reasons we had a Civil Rights Movement.
But at the same time the Market Revolution is going to bring a
certain sense of anxiety, even dread, even despair.
It will lead to great wealth, of course.
Fortunes will begin to be made in the textile industry and in
the railroad industry by the ’40s and ’50s,
and in a host of other ways, real fortunes.
And some fortunes will begin to be made in simple financial
speculation. Wall Street will be born. At the same time,
of course, as wealth grows, the inequality in wealth grows
too. Specialization will set in.
Workplaces that some–that your parents’ generation may have
grown up understanding as a very personal place.
Even if you worked in a small shop, they only had eight
workers and you were related to half of them.
The workplace would become less personal, bigger,
uncontrollable. Women went to work,
most famously in the Lowell factories in Massachusetts and
in other places. Among the many images of the
famous mill girls is this one, taken in 1850,
I believe, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
She looks about nine-years-old; she may have been 12 or 13.
But for the first time, in significant numbers,
young girls and young women left farms,
left the realm of domesticity, left that world in which they
presumably had been shielded as children,
and now entered a world where they were child laborers,
and in a world now that breeds child labor,
and even defends child labor, you have problems.
The Market Revolution would also lead to a lot of natural
environmental degradation. People got to be–got worried
about rivers, they really did.
There’s now an environmental history being written of the
impact of the Market Revolution. As I mentioned earlier it would
lead, of course, to big cycles of boom and bust.
A big depression hit in 1837. Another big depression hit in
1857. Much more on that 1857 panic,
as they were called then, a little later in the course,
because it’s absolutely pertinent to what happened in
the great political debates of the late1850s. Even the idea of what a child
is–since we’ve got a child up here–even the idea of–and
there’s a growing little subfield now of children’s
history, which is actually very
interesting; there’s a man named Jim Martin
at Marquette University who’s pioneered this–even the idea of
a child, that a child’s place in a
family undergoes a kind of revolution in 20 or 30 years.
In a working-class family, an immigrant working-class
family in particular, by the ’30s and ’40s,
a child meant income, a child meant a worker.
Everybody had to work, and usually outside of whatever
was home. But what also set in,
in the growing middle-class, of course, was a more bourgeois
definition of childhood, a more modern definition of
childhood, born somewhere there between 1800 and 1860,
where the child was to be a protected youth–shielded,
and not used, by a family.
Parenting, in this new bourgeois conception of family,
parenting was to be moral guardianship.
Or so it seemed. What the Market Revolution was,
in so many ways, was an engine,
a tremendous–Charles Sellers has written a famous book on
this–it was a tremendous engine for what became arguably the
most prevalent idea of the entire nineteenth century in
America, and that’s the notion of
progress. America was now going to be the
nation of progress. It was going to be the place of
progress. It seemed to have boundless
borders and boundless resources. It looked like it could expand
almost forever. It had tremendous riches in ore.
It had tremendous natural wealth.
It would therefore be the place of progress in the world.
And as Walt Whitman wrote in poem after poem,
and other poets did as well, and politicians said over and
over and over and over–America, and this United States,
this nation formed there–would be the beginning of a new man,
a new start for humankind. That’s a big idea.
Of course we still want to be that.
It’s never vanished in our culture.
We still sometimes want to be Winthrop’s City on the Hill,
beacon of something for everybody.
But think with me just for one second about the idea of
progress. If you come to believe,
if you say to the world, “We are the hope of humans,
we are the hope of earth, we are progress.
And by the way, we, the people of progress,
are rooted in those principles of the Declaration of
Independence”–which are written down essentially as
creeds–“and, oh and by the way,
we have a written Constitution–we actually wrote
it down, we have a Bill of Rights where
we declare these things on paper, unlike the Brits.”
What have you done? You’ve said:
“we are really special, and we are really important,
and we are really good.” You’ve kind of set yourself up,
haven’t you? If somebody walks and you’re
meeting them for the first time, “Hello, I’m a beacon of
progress and good and hope in the world, how do you do?”
[Laughter] You’re probably going to think,
“oh shit, this”–instantly your cynicism kicks in and then
“who’s this jerk?” The doctrine of progress I’m
simply saying has always bred its contradictions.
And there were a whole bunch of them laying out there,
weren’t there? They were laying all over the
place. But, you know,
you couldn’t resist it. How could you resist a sense of
change in 1820s New York? 1830s Philadelphia?
1840s and ’50s Ohio? 1850s Chicago,
which was already by the 1850s the railroad capital of North
America? How could you resist that sense
of change? Tocqueville couldn’t resist it,
it was the thing he couldn’t stop writing about in
Democracy in America, and he was only observing in
1831. He didn’t come back and see it
in the 1850s. He was just amazed at these
Americans, how they just moved all the time,
and they were just so full of hope all the time.
He said Americans would always build a house but then move
before they put a roof on it. They were always mobile,
always going somewhere, always changing. Part of that change,
of course, bringing fear with it, was immigration.
In the 1830s 600,000 immigrants came to the United States,
almost entirely from Western Europe;
in the 1840s alone 1.5 million; and in the 1850s,
almost 3 million more. By 1852-53, Boston and New
York–think about this–Boston–although we’re
getting close to that again–Boston and New York had
50% foreign-born populations. One of every two people in New
York City in 1852 was born outside the United States.
Same in Boston. Close to that in Philadelphia.
The Northern cities, seats of market culture,
commercialism, manufacturing,
were immigrant cities. All this, of course,
was fuelled by–I mentioned it already–a transportation
revolution symbolized by the Erie Canal,
finished in 1825, which remained profitable all
the way out into the 1880s. The longest ditch in the world,
as it was called, 300-and-some-odd miles out to
Buffalo. It was the romantic–and by the
way, about 3,300 miles of such canals would be built by the
middle of the 1850s, all for the purpose of
commerce, and to move people. Steamboats became the romantic
symbol of this great transportation revolution and
all of this movement. Although they too,
they too brought dread with them.
One-third of every steamboat built in the United States
before 1850 exploded and destroyed–became a wreck.
And there’s no mistaking in Mark Twain’s imagination,
if you remember the scene in Huck Finn–I mean,
among the hundred eternal take-home images in Huck Finn is
that moment when Huck and Jim are on their raft,
it’s a little foggy, they can’t quite see–they can
hear–and pretty soon that steamboat just smashes into that
raft and over they go. Steamboats were wonderful and
exciting and romantic. You could go gamble on them,
you could go get sexed on them. They also might just blow you
up. [Laughter]
And then, of course, railroads, which reshaped North
America. No continent,
you could argue, had ever been quite
made–readymade if you want–for railroads quite like North
America. It fit the environment
perfectly, once they could make these things actually go
twenty-five miles an hour. They never figured out how to
build gauges properly. There were some twelve to
fifteen different widths of railroads in the Northern states
alone by the 1850s, and you could go into one town
on a gauge, I don’t know, three feet wide but on the
other side of town it would come out four feet wide.
Why they never quite sat down and standardized all this,
I have no idea. But railroads revolutionized an
American sense of time, their ability to travel.
It revolutionized manufacturing,
it revolutionized how quickly you could get to markets,
and it made Chicago Chicago. It also made the first
multi-millionaires, the first massive fortunes,
and it became the first great example of the deep relationship
in the nineteenth century–back in our heyday of laisser-faire
government, ho-ho–of a relationship
between the Federal government and business.
The great American railroads were built by and large,
for decades, by government subsidies,
and a tremendous amount of corruption.
The railroad had a lot to do, too, of course,
with linking northeast with northwest,
which has a lot to do with a certain sense of economic
isolation that set in in the South,
to some extent. And I’ll just say a word
quickly, that don’t underestimate the influence here
of an ideology beneath this. We usually only talk about
Manifest Destiny when we’re talking about the westward
movement beyond the Mississippi. We only usually bring it up
when we’re talking about the Mexican War and its aftermath,
or something. But Manifest Destiny was a very
old American idea. It was probably coined by this
journalist named O’Sullivan, although now there’s a new
theory that it wasn’t. I leave it to my expert
colleagues in History of the American West to decide exactly
who came up with the term Manifest Destiny,
who actually first used it. But Manifest Destiny was in
some ways the fuel of the American imagination.
It combined so many ideas. Under that heading you might
call “American Progress” came the sense of American mission:
spreading liberty, spreading democracy,
spreading Christianity. A Christian civilization was
deeply at the root of this cluster of ideas we call
Manifest Destiny, as was a virulent kind of
nationalism that boomed after the War of 1812 and through the
1820s into the 1830s. And Manifest Destiny was the
engine of capitalism, make no mistake.
Why did we want all that land in the Mexican Session?
Why did we want Oregon? Why did we want California?
And deep at the root of Manifest Destiny,
of course–and there’s book after book written on this–is a
deep and abiding American white supremacy.
It was the destiny of a white, Anglo-Saxon,
Protestant, United States to take control and improve this
great land it had been given. Now, before I leave that,
let me just suggest–sometimes one of the ways,
when you want to understand how progress builds in its own
contradictions, and why I think contradiction
is what makes American history interesting–we are our
contradictions. That’s why the world is
fascinated with us. Look at the literature.
Go back all the way to James Fenimore Cooper.
His Leatherstocking Tales are full of a certain
anxiety about what might be happening to that frontier,
what’s coming from east to west.
Read Thoreau’s Walden. What’s Thoreau up to?
I mean Thoreau may have been a snob, he may have been smarmy,
and he may have wanted you to think he was cool because he
sold pencils. [Laughter]
But he wrote one of the most brilliant critiques of change,
and what it can mean, any American ever wrote.
When Thoreau sits on his little stool outside his cabin at
Walden Pond and he hears the train go by over the ridge,
and he puts his hands over his ears–he doesn’t want to hear
it–he’s representing something. I’m not saying he was right,
and the damn fool should’ve got down and got real with the
railroads, but he didn’t. What is Emerson up to in his
essay “Nature”? In almost every poem Walt
Whitman wrote he seems to be fashioning himself,
if not the whole of this American people,
which sometimes he did call an American race,
as a new Adam. “I the singer of Adamic
songs”–he said it directly–“through the new
garden of the West, the great city is calling,
as Adam early in the morning, walking forth from the bower,
refreshed with sleep; behold me, where I pass,
hear my voice.” He goes on, I can do anything
in this American West, this American possibility.
But as soon as we read Whitman, then you realize there’s
Nathaniel Hawthorne who in 1844–even before Whitman
started writing most of his poems–Hawthorne was a pretty
dourful, he was an old Puritan,
he was a conservative, dourful kind of–he was a real
New Englander. Hawthorne wrote a short story
you should read sometime, as a balance to all of this
optimism of this period, irresistible as that optimism
was. It’s called “Earth’s Holocaust.”
Have you ever read that? It’s an incredible story.
He has this whole group of people out somewhere on the
American frontier and they’re a kind of a cult. They decide they’re going to
have a bonfire and they build this giant fire and into it they
throw everything from the past. They throw heraldry,
they throw every kind of vestige of Old World culture and
monarchy and aristocracy and civilization.
They throw all kinds of old books, great old books,
onto the bonfire. They burn everything from
Europe, everything that’s old. It’s a purification.
They’re going to make a new world.
They don’t need anything from the past.
And it’s Hawthorne’s satire, it’s his critique of it.
It’s apocalyptic, angry critique of all these
Americans who think they’re inventing everything anew every
day. Hawthorne had a bummer,
I mean he–. Well enough, I guess, of that; although if you want to
understand the optimism of that time just dip into Leaves of
Grass, read Whitman’s Old Pioneers.
He can’t stop. I once counted the number of
times he used the word–the letter–O–in that poem,
and I quit counting. It’s like America,
to Whitman, was “O!”. He just couldn’t stop.
Well, and sometimes that “O America” meant the tinkerer,
it meant the inventor, it meant the guy who invented a
new kind of sewing machine and took it in for a patent.
If you want to understand this Yankee, northern,
market economy, society, just look at some
histories of technological innovation throughout this era
and you realize there were just thousands and thousands of
patents given, mostly to northerners,
for inventing this or that kind of thing or trinket or firearm
or method of producing something or printing press or glass or
musical instrument or Connecticut clocks or the first
refrigerators or ice-making machines or new locks or new
elevators, and on and on and on and on and
on it goes. I forget who–it may have been
Charles Seller–who said if you want to see the Market
Revolution happening go study the Archives of the U.S.
Patent Office. I’ve always found that kind of
research rather boring, but I think he had a point.
Now, in any society changing this much, this fast,
doubling its own population–doubling–in
twenty-five years. If the rate of population
growth of the United States between 1820 and 1850 had
sustained over time, we’d have today approximately
one and a half billion people in the United States.
Now it didn’t, and we had these World Wars and
we had all this history in between.
What do we have now, 300 million?
If the rate of growth had sustained, that’s what the
population would’ve been. Any era of great change,
great ferment, usually causes reform,
anxiety, people who get worried, want to change things.
We’ve probably had four major periods in American history
of–there’s one other picture I wanted to put up. Oh, I’ll leave that little girl
up. She’s much better than the–.
I had a picture of the Lowell Mills insignia but you don’t
need that. We have probably four great
reform periods in American history.
Now, and by reform I mean a period in which people became
professional reformers. Movements, organizations,
societies–whole newspapers came into existence,
magazines came into existence–to either eradicate
something, to change something,
or to build something. Fundamental challenges to the
social order. The first is this era,
of the 1820s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,
Antebellum America, exemplified most obviously by
the anti-slavery movement, which is where we’re going to
get to as we leave today. Of course, there were many
other reform movements at the time.
The second great reform era is the Progressive Era,
a great response to urbanization,
industrialization and immigration, as it had never
quite happened before. The third is in all likelihood
the New Deal, the Great Depression,
the incredible emergencies and crises of what governments owe
their people and people owe their governments that the Great
Depression caused. And the New Deal brought a
fundamental new set of approaches, ideas,
which we’re still debating today;
it’s all over our political culture whether it’s named or
not. And the fourth one is the ’60s. There it had less to do often
with social forms of reform–although that’s not
entirely true–than it had to do with the Civil Rights revolution
and the Vietnam War. In American history our reform
crusades have usually had to do with one of several objects or
purposes or problems. The first is the
industrializing process. And we’ve been living the
history of how to reform the industrializing process,
and now the post-industrializing process,
ever since our first market revolution–we’re still living
it. Why are we having a debate over
Social Security? The second is racial equality,
and we’re still having that reform movement.
Well, or are we? The third is gender equality;
that’s at least as old as abolitionism. The fourth is war,
and we got peace movements in American history and anti-war
fervor and ferment, of all kinds,
for a very long time. And the fifth kind of American
reform–and here it takes on sometimes some distinctive,
distinctly American forms–is religious and individual
morality; movements of piety,
movements that try to define deviance in others,
and try to reform others to a certain personal conception of
faith, or religion, or behavior.
But whenever we’ve had a reform era there’s been a big issue,
or two or three or four. That’s why all these arguments
that we all get into these days about third-party political
candidates–what do we really need in our political culture,
what would break apart the stagnation of our two-party
system, if that’s what people want–or put more directly,
will Michael Bloomberg run or not?
I always throw that back at people and say,
damn it, read some history. There’s never been a successful
third-party political culture take hold in this country
without one really big issue to drive it.
Name that issue that Michael Bloomberg would use.
I’m a billionaire and you can be too?
[laughter] That’s unfair. I know, he’s a nice guy. Let me just end here with this. To be anti-slavery in America
by the 1820s and 1830s was to face a host of barriers–and
I’ll come back to these barriers next time–a host of barriers.
The sanctity of the U.S. Constitution,
the depth of that pro-slavery argument, which northern
abolitionists over time had to actually come to realize even
existed–and they began to realize it existed in the 1820s
and ’30s. They faced tremendous barriers.
There was no good reason in the world that an abolitionist in
the 1830s, ’40s, and even the ’50s,
had any right to believe they would see the end of slavery in
their lifetime. And last point.
One of the barriers–think about this–one of the barriers
that an anti-slavery–if you were worried about slavery in
America, its expansion,
its influence in the government, what it did to free
labor, how it might retard that market revolution that you
wanted your children to benefit from,
whatever position you might end up taking between 1830 and 1860
that made you at least suspicious of slavery,
whatever you thought of African-Americans–one of the
barriers you’re up against is the simple fact that the United
States was a republic, and that the side that owned
those slaves, that vast slave society,
half of the United States–it’s still half the States in
1850–they were free, their leaders at least,
were free to defend their system.
They were free to dissent. And they were republicans,
small r, too. The greatest tragedy of
American history arguably is that this struggle could not be
decided by debate. Okay, see you in the gym.

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