The transformation of a myth in the industrial era.
The following post is part of an ongoing series on the self-made man in U.S. History.
“All over the land were thousands like them, self-made men quick to lay hands on opportunity if it knocked on the door, ready to seek it out if were slow in knocking, recognizing no limitations on their powers, discouraged by no shortcomings in their training.
–Vernon Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, 1927
It has long been understood, in economics as in so many other ways, that the Civil War marked a dividing line in American history. Before the war, the United States was an overwhelmingly agricultural nation with a small mercantile elite; after the war, it became a modern industrial society in which the factory steadily displaced the farm from the center of the nation’s consciousness, and the urban worker steadily displaced the yeoman as the embodiment of the nation’s working classes.
There was also a transformation within the world of commerce. Andrew Carnegie, who was born into one world but came of age in the other, described the difference in a famous 1889 essay that represented the conventional wisdom of the time – and ever since. “Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth or in small shops which formed part of the household,” he wrote. “The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master, and therefore subject to the same conditions. When those apprentices rose to become masters, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices. There was, substantially, social equality, and even political equality, for those engaged in industrial pursuits had then little or no political voice in the State.” While some were inclined to affirm, even sentimentalize this vision, Carnegie was not among them. “The inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices,” he asserted. Far better was the (inevitable) replacement of this regime with a more efficient, if less egalitarian, system of mass production.
Not everyone agreed such a system was better, of course. Indeed, a significant part of the history of the 19th century involved focusing on the ravages of this new order, both in terms of the material deprivations it imposed on unskilled labor, as well as in the evisceration of social and political quality. But its reality rarely seriously questioned; nor was the role of the Civil War in bringing it about. Charles Francis Adams Jr., in the army, was struck in 1871 by the “greatly enlarged grasp of enterprise and the increased facility of combination” that characterized the U.S. economy in the years following 1865. “The great operations of war, the handling of large masses of men, the lavish expenditure of unprecedented sums of money, the immense financial operations, the possibilities of effective co-operation were lessons not likely to be lost on men quick to receive and to apply all new ideas.”
But, as Adams perceived, the vast new sense of scale in the American economy was marked by a paradox: the growing scale of the economy was managed by a shrinking number of individuals. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the definitive industry of the 19th century: railroads, presided over by people with names like Vanderbilt, Drew, Gould, Fisk, and Huntington. “Single men have controlled hundreds of miles of railway, thousands of men, tens of millions of revenue, and hundreds of millions of capital,” he noted. “The strength implied in all this they wielded in practical independence of control both of governments and of individuals; much as petty German despots might have governed their little principalities a century or two ago.”
Railroads, along with other forms industrial capitalism, were springing up all over the world in the second half of the 19th century, bringing with them great disparities of wealth and power from Brazil to China. But nowhere were such phenomena more obvious, even glaring, than in the United States, where equality had long been the hallmark of American society. And yet this outcome was not simply a commercial coup d'état by the new breed of industrialists The fact that they imposed their will begs the question how they were be allowed to, and why the oppressions caused by their success, while often loudly protested, never resulted in a successful challenge to their right to run that they considered their business. Which leads us to an important reality of the post-Civil War order: it was governed by a cultural logic that took shape much earlier in the century. At the heart of this logic was a transformation in the understanding of the self-made man in the decades before the war.
The key to understanding this transformation was a concept that had guided the Founding Fathers: natural aristocracy. Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s great-grandfather had used the term in a 1790 letter to Samuel Adams. “Nobles have been essential parties in the preservation of liberty, whenever and wherever it has existed,” John Adams wrote to his cousin. “By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny.” A generation later, Thomas Jefferson invoked the phrase in his own correspondence with Adams. “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents,” Jefferson explained, contrasting it with “artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” This elite was rooted in accomplishment, not privilege: it was self-made. For all their differences in temperament, experience, ideology, Adams, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers had a deep personal investment in it as the basis of their careers (though Adams, it should be said, cast a skeptical eye that that it could be engineered as easily as Jefferson seemed to think it could be).
But the legitimacy was of this self-made aristocracy went far beyond that: its moral basis was civic. “May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?” Jefferson asked Adams, noting that in general, the common people “will elect the really good and wise.” Adams was not so sure, lamenting the “Stupidity with which the more numerous multitude” tended to be tricked by fake aristocrats. But he never doubted the necessity of a natural aristocracy were the republic to survive.
As many subsequent observers have noted, the Founding Fathers were in an important sense victims of their own success. In crafting a remarkably tensile Constitution that checked some of the more venal impulses of their successors, and in bequeathing a nation with relatively secure boundaries and vast natural resources, they in effect made mediocrity possible (both Jefferson and Adams were appalled by Andrew Jackson, who wore his lack of refinement as a badge of honor). Or, to put it more charitably, they created the possibility for natural aristocracies whose primary impetus was not civic, the way it had been for Franklin, Clay, and Lincoln. The pursuit of happiness could take new forms.
Whether as a necessary evil or a positive good, the Founding Fathers believed that there had to be a place for the voice of the people in choosing natural aristocrats to be their leaders. But by the early decades of the nineteenth century, an imperative to create and maintain that channel of communication – evident in the steady recession of eligibility requirements for voting, especially in the new territories that rapidly became states – created democratic imperatives that took on a life of their own, in large measure because allowing cream to rise was an important premise of natural aristocracy itself. Today we’re very aware of the glaring limits of this vision – the way it excluded women, African Americans, Native Americans, and even many immigrants. But the expansion of the electorate, typified by the abandonment of property qualifications for voting, created a polity that was really striking in its relative scale and in the force of internal logic that would inexorably lead not only to the absorption of such outsiders, but also the possibility of liberty experienced and expressed outside the boundaries of traditional politics.
No one captured these dynamics more vividly than the early 20th century cultural historian Vernon Parrington, whose three-volume history, Main Currents in American Thought, remains among the most lively chronicles of our national life. “Society of a sudden was become fluid,” he wrote of the early nineteenth century. “Strange figures, sprung from obscure origins, thrust themselves everywhere upon the scene. In the reaction from the mean and skimpy, a passionate will to power was issuing from unexpected sources, undisciplined, confused in ethical values, but endowed with immense vitality. Individualism was simplified to the acquisitive instinct.” The hallmark of such figures, whether in the form of frontiersmen like Davy Crockett or showmen like P.T. Barnum, was the way their notion of the self-made man operated independently of – even defied – the logic of natural aristocracy. Mobility, literal and figurative, was becoming an end unto itself.
Next: the transformation of the corporation in 19th century national life.
Next: the transformation of the corporation in 19th century national life.