Monday, December 31, 2012

The Bob Dylan of the 19th century

Ralph Waldo Emerson, self-made rock star

 The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture. 

The discussion of the self-made man in this series has been dominated by political figures. In large measure, that’s because I see the predominant vision of the self-made man in this era of U.S. history as a decisively civic one, and politicians are typically in the business of making, and acting upon, public-sector arguments. But other versions of the self-made man were thriving, much in the way that there were alternatives to the largely religious vision of the seventeenth century, or the agrarian ones of the eighteenth. (Remember that Benjamin Franklin played the role of a politician – among many others – over the course of his eighteenth century life.) But one of the truly striking aspects of the self-made man in the early nineteenth century was the way it led people working in arenas that were not necessarily in the public sector to cast their work in such terms.
Take artists and intellectuals. In an important sense, self-making is a credential for such people: whatever their backgrounds, they don’t gain recognition unless they can somehow carve out a space (aesthetic, ideological, or otherwise) they can call their own. Until the middle decades of the nineteenth century, they operated in the shadow of British and European models. After that, though, they became American. Which, to a great extent, involved the paradoxical assertion of individualism – a term coined by Frenchman Alexis de Tocquville after a visit to the United States in 1831-32 – as a national trait.
There’s no better illustration of this cultural development than Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was the to nineteenth century was Bob Dylan was to the twentieth: a celebrity rock star whose elliptical words were dissected with passionate enthusiasm by generations of devotees. Today Emerson is remembered principally as an essayist, but in his own day he was celebrated as a poet, and his periodic tours packed houses and allowed him to make a living on the basis of his writings.
Which is not to say he ever saw himself as a man who earned a paycheck. Born in 1803 as the descendant of generations of Puritan ministers (his grandfather was a chaplain for the rebels during the American Revolution), Emerson was educated at the elite Boston Latin School and Harvard and ordained as a Unitarian minister. He took over the pulpit of the Second Church of Boston, which dated back to the early seventeenth century, and commanded a princely salary. But following the death of his first wife in 1831, he grew increasingly disaffected with his church, and with organized religion generally. His first major essay, “Nature” (1836), published anonymously, became the manifesto of the Transcendentalist movement in the United States, part of a broader cultural movement (including the painters of the Hudson River School, for example), placing primacy on the natural world as a source of inspiration. Emerson’s declaration of independence is widely considered his Harvard commencement address of 1837, “The American Scholar,” in which he exhorted his audience to forge an original relationship to the world. “Books are fine for a scholar’s idle times,” he asserted. “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (Bold as this was, it carried with it echoes of the Puritans, who revered the Bible but nevertheless placed primacy on the individual conscience.)
Emerson’s signature statement on the importance of the self-made man in its broadest formulations was “Self-Reliance,” a text he delivered in lectures before its first publication in 1841. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” he exhorted. Other lines resound through history like song lyrics: “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-comformist”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; “Your goodness must have some edge to it.” Insofar as self-making is an act of discipline, Emerson asserts, it’s less one of preparation or diligence than a sheer force of will to cut through the Gordian knot of tradition and duty. There’s something thrilling about this, but something mystifying, too: how does one will oneself to will? Emerson’s critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether there was less to his pronouncements than met his (transcendental) eyeball.
Such suspicions were reinforced by Emerson’s tendency to sidestep the raging political disputes of the time. “If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with the latest news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy woodchopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off,” he asks in “Self-Reliance.” Over a century and a half later, we recognize the type Emerson criticizes – crusaders for social justice who have a curious blindspot for the quotidian realities of their lives and ours. But it requires a real squint to see abolitionists as bigots, particularly since many of the outrages of Emerson’s time were a good deal closer than a thousand miles away. He would eventually come around the cause, but a strong vein of what seems like caution seemed to mark his politics.
Some of his acolytes were less cautious. His cranky young friend Henry David Thoreau rented land from Emerson, putting up the small cheap cabin that allowed him to write Walden (1854). Like Emerson, there was a curiously insistent public thrust to Thoreau’s private life, typified by his more militant variety of antislavery as expressed in the famous essay (now known as “Civil Disobedience”) that landed him in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in protest over the Mexican War, as well as his 1854 essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” in which he excoriated the complacency of his fellow New Englanders on the issue. Thoreau’s insistence on living a simple life had an important component of self-made ideology embedded in it; he regarded relying on others as a compromise of an essential American freedom (even if he relied on his mother and sister to do his laundry for him).  

Next: Walt Whitman, self-made everyman

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jim is taking some holiday vacation time. His recent reading includes David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a book he's been meaning to take on for some time. The release of the recent movie starring Tom Hanks, among others, came and went, but release of the movie tie-in edition prompted a delayed departure into Mitchell's fictional universe. The novel is simply dazzling, a tour de force by a writer who effortlessly tells a series of interlocking stories that stretch from the 19th century far into an indeterminate future. Those stories include mystery, gothic and science-fiction, all of which comprise a profound meditation on the nature of history. Mitchell is positively Joycean in his literary ventriloquism; Mevillean in his capacity to grapple with ontological issues and Grishamesque in his ability to create and sustain suspense in the individual tales. (Plus he has a sense of humor, which emerges most vividly when the characters of succeeding stories comment/reveal what's really going on in preceding ones.) Clocking in at over 500 pages, it's a big book, but a deeply satisfying one. The tie-in edition features a new afterword by the author. My guess is that the film will eventually become a cult classic as novel and film synergetically feed each other.

May you all find satisfaction in a good book this holiday season, among other kinds.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This is an archive edition of AHN that first appeared in 2010. Best wishes to all for a happily restful holiday week.

Jim is observing Christmas. Not "the holidays," not "the season," but Christmas. On balance, the United States is probably still statistically a Christian nation, but its elite is largely secular, and that which isn't is religiously diverse.

Insofar as Christmas really is a minority observance among the people whose eyes may cross this blog, I don't regard that as a problem. Notwithstanding complaints on the part of some, there is no "war" on Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, if not hostile, to Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism (which I practice) in particular. But I don't think you have to be religious or Christian to find hope and cheer in a scenario of a poor child in a remote place coming into the world and transforming it by the power of word and example.   And that a few wise men would sense something afoot and seek out the child (as well as a powerful satrap who would be thwarted in the attempt to find and kill a future rival). As would become clear over time, that child was never meant to be a secular king. His work, and his legacy, would prove more durable.

Merry Christmas to all.                                                                                                      -- J.C.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lincoln, emancipated

Yes, he really was born in a log cabin

 The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

In more ways than one, Lincoln was the heir of Henry Clay, whom he idolized as “my beau ideal of a statesman.” Literally and figuratively, he hailed from Clay’s neck of the woods – Hardin County, Kentucky, still very much the frontier when Lincoln was born in 1809. So was southwest Indiana, which he later described as “a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals in the woods” at the time his family relocated there when he was a child. The Lincolns eventually settled in Illinois, largely because real estate titles were less confused, thanks to Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinances, which laid down a grid for orderly settlement of the region known as the Old Northwest.
In a brief autobiographical statement he wrote at the time he was first running for president, Lincoln described his childhood unsentimentally: “A[braham] though very young was large of age and had an axe put into his hands at once, and from that within his twentythird year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument – less, of course, plowing and harvesting seasons.” He had little in the way of formal schooling, which all told added up to about a year; “there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education,” he said of his youth. That he learned to read at all, much less become one of the greatest masters of the English language, is nothing short of miraculous.
Because I have already written about Lincoln as the apotheosis of the self-made man in American history, and because the outlines of his life are familiar to many people who otherwise know little about American history, I will not trace his biography in any detail here. There are, however, two points worth emphasizing. The first is that almost uniquely among the political figures that invoked the myth of the self-made man, Lincoln’s background was authentically modest. In contrast to contemporaries like William Henry Harrison (who won the presidency in 1840 by championing his lowly origins), Lincoln really was born in a log cabin. Besides rural poverty, his childhood adversity included the death of his mother when he was nine years old, chilly relations with a remote father, and chronic depression that dogged him well into adulthood. He had a difficult marriage, endured the death of two sons, and experienced multiple political defeats, most painfully in his U.S. Senate race of 1858, which he began as an underdog and came far closer to winning than anybody had a right to expect.
To be sure, Lincoln had valuable resources, too; his stepmother proved to be understanding and supportive, and his wife was also supportive and politically shrewd (Clay had been a frequent guest in her home in her youth). And there’s simply no other way to understand the confluence of events leading up to Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency in 1860 – a fractured Republican field, a convention in his hometown, and the likelihood in a badly divided electorate that any nominee from his party would go on to win the election – as anything other than astounding good luck. But the sheer unlikelihood of Lincoln’s rise made his vertiginous rise all the more thrilling – and all the more intriguing. Future president Woodrow Wilson evocatively captured what made Lincoln so special, not simply in terms of the man himself but also in terms of what he seemed to represent. “This is the mystery of democracy,” he said in a centennial speech he delivered at Lincoln’s (reputed) birthplace, “that its richest fruits spring up from soils which no man has prepared and in circumstances where they are least expected.”
The other, more important point I’d like to make is that Lincoln didn’t just live the dream. He thought long and hard about it, and discussed it with a passionate clarity that was always more than a mere political talking point. Lincoln’s understanding of the reality of upward mobility helps explain his hatred of slavery. Though always insisted that it was a moral issue – “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing his wrong” – he made the political case against it on the basis of the way it impeded upward mobility, because slave owners privileged (human) property over opportunity.
A speech Lincoln gave in Cincinnati in 1859 is notable in this regard. He began by noting that critics of the emerging capitalist order claimed that all labor must be compelled by either wages or slavery, and that the latter was preferable not only to the master, but also to the slave, who had more personal security than the casual laborer vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the free labor market. His reply:

There is no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition. The general rule is otherwise. I know it is so; and I will tell you why. When at an early age, I was myself a hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month; and therefore I do know that there is not always the necessity for actual labor because once there was propriety in being so. My understanding of the hired laborer is this: A young man finds himself of an age to be dismissed from parental control; he has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer; he has got no soil nor shop, and he avails himself of the opportunity of hiring himself to some man who has capital to pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. He is benefited by availing himself of that privilege. He works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital. Now he buys land on his own hook; he settles, marries, begets sons and daughters, and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.

Significantly, Lincoln saw the benefits of such a system in social terms. “This is essentially a People’s contest,” he told Congress as the Civil War was breaking out in 1861. “On the one side of the Union, is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Three years later, Lincoln made the point a different way to a group of Ohio soldiers: “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” he told them. “I am living witness than any of your children may look to come hear as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright – not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” Slavery threatened this jewel. And when that threat became mortal, Lincoln acted to destroy slavery in order to save it. He lived by that credo, and died so that it may live – for all Americans.

Next: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Bob Dylan of the 19th century

Monday, December 17, 2012

Revolutionary opportunities

Alexander Hamilton: poor boy made (obnoxiously) good

 The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

 Though he was older than most of his revolutionary contemporaries, Benjaming Franklin was hardly the only man for whom the American Revolution functioned as a gigantic career opportunity. We’ve already seen the way in which it transformed the lives of relatively modest provincials like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for whom the it provided the means to embody and/or promote a whole new vision of self-sufficiency that seemed impossible while living in the long shadow of imperial Britain.
A good illustration is furnished by the career of John Adams. The fiercely ambitious Adams had already gone a good deal farther than his shoemaker father in making his way in the world by 1776. But he could never have amounted to much more than a resentful provincial without a war of independence, which led to a political career, culminating in the presidency, that he could have scarcely imagined as a boy in Boston. In some ways Adams remained a resentful provincial to the end of his days, anxious that other leading lights got more attention than he did. “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” he famously told his friend – seemingly everybody’s friend – Benjamin Rush in 1790. “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” Though he was vain and puritanical, Adam’s humor, self-insight, and capacity to reflect more generously on his peers in old age redeems him.
Perhaps no Founder Father traveled farther, literally or figuratively, than Alexander Hamilton. Given his white racial identity in the racially stratified Caribbean, it can’t really be said that Hamilton was a child of poverty when he was born, circa 1755, on or near the island of Nevis (some uncertainties surround this). But his background was hardly auspicious. “My birth is the subject of the most humiliating criticism,” he wrote at the end of his life [930]; contemporaries like Adams described him as “the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar.” Hamilton was (apparently) the second illegitimate child born to Rachel Faucett Lavien, a woman of French Huguenot and other descent, who had left her husband for Scotsman James Hamilton.  The couple relocated to the Danish island of St. Croix in 1765.  It was around this time, however, that Hamilton abandoned Lavien, whose husband obtained a divorce settlement that made it impossible for her to remarry. She opened a store selling provisions and plantation supplies that her sons helped her run. When she died in 1768, they were virtual orphans. The younger Hamilton went to work for a local merchant. Biographer Ron Chernow fills in some of the details – and clarifies just what a surprising figure Hamilton was in light of them:

Let us pause briefly to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle and grandmother had all died. James, sixteen and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless. At every step in their rootless, topsy-turvy existence, they had been surrounded by failed, broken, embittered people. Their short lives had been shadowed by a stupefying sequence of bankruptcies, marital separations, deaths, scandals and disinheritance. Such repeated shocks must have stripped Alexander Hamilton of any sense that life was fair, that he existed in a benign universe, or that he could ever count on help from anyone. That this abominable childhood produced such a strong, productive, self-reliant human being – that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up the founding father of a country he had not even seen – seems little short of miraculous. Because he maintained perfect silence about his unspeakable past, never exploiting it to puff his later success, it was impossible for his contemporaries to comprehend the exceptional nature of his personal triumph. What we know of Hamilton’s childhood has been learned almost entirely in the last century. [Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 26-27]

There were two key factors in Hamilton’s triumph over adversity. The first were his evident intellectual gifts, which he developed over the course of his life without the advantages enjoyed peers like Jefferson. From an early age Hamilton expressed his desire to make a mark on the world. “My ambition is prevalent, that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk, to which my Fortune &c. contemns me and would willing risk my life tho’ not my character to exalt my station,” he wrote a friend in 1769, when he was barely in adolescence. “My Youth excludes me from an hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity.” He ends the letter by saying “I wish there was a war.”[AH3] Before long he would get the preferment and the war.
Which brings us to the other notable feature of Hamilton’s youth: his talent for attracting powerful mentors. This began with the Presbyterian minister who raised funds to send him to the mainland for an education (he attended King’s College, now Columbia). He quickly became involved in revolutionary politics, joining a New York militia and receiving the rank of captain. Parlaying connections with influential New Yorkers like John Jay, Hamilton joined the war effort and was part of the New York campaign of 1776 and the Battle of Trenton at the end of that year. Invited to join the staffs of generals Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene, Hamilton declined because he wanted to be part of the fighting. But when Continental Army commander George Washington asked him to serve as his aide with a rank of lieutenant colonel, it was an offer Hamilton could not refuse. He served at Washington’s side for four years before returning to combat and serving with bravery at the (climatic) Battle of Yorktown.
Following his military service, Hamilton served a stint in Congress before returning to New York to practice law. He participated in the planning and debate for a new U.S. Constitution in 1787, and teamed up with James Madison of Virginia and fellow New Yorker John Jay to produce The Federalist Papers, a collection of articles advocating adoption of the Constitution published in 1787-88.  Once it was ratified, Hamilton reunited with Washington to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in the first presidential administration, a job that allowed him – amid many objections – to lay the foundations of a modern American economy.
Hamilton’s place as a quintessential embodiment of the American Dream of upward mobility is somewhat obscured in the American collective imagination. In large measure, this is because his personality was not nearly as appealing as Franklin’s, as cagey as Jefferson’s, or as judicious as Washington’s. Hamilton was brilliant, knew it, and did not suffer fools gladly. (He got impatient serving in the army under Washington, who, recognizing that Hamilton had talents, particularly in the area of finance, that he did not, was secure enough to overlook his arrogance.)
Hamilton was also an avowed elitist. “The voice of the people is has been said to be the voice of God; and however much this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact,” he reputedly said during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” [164] Hamilton was more diplomatic in The Federalist. “Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined with few exceptions to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades,” he said, with substantial accuracy, in the 35th essay in the series. He was perhaps less accurate when he went on to assert that such workers “know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectively promoted by the merchant than by themselves.” Hamilton was impatient with democratic pieties uttered by ideological opponents whom he believed pandered to voters. According to one later memoir, he reacted to a guest at a dinner party who described himself as a “friend of the people” by asserting, “your people, sir – your people is a great beast!” [T Parsons 109-110]
There are a number of ironies in this. As we’ve already seen, Thomas Jefferson was a tireless adversary for the yeoman farmer, notwithstanding his relatively highborn origins and aristocratic tastes. Hamilton, by contrast, was the first great immigrant success story in American history, and as such might plausibly have been expected to champion of the little man. That said, there were also ironies within Hamilton’s snobbery. Though he rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest of Americans, and married into money (his father-in-law was yet another mentor), Hamilton worked ferociously hard, showed little interest in money for its own sake, and regarded plantation grandees as parasites. He was a lifelong opponent of slavery, and demonstrated a scrupulousness about his professional conduct in stark contrast to his private affairs, which were not marked by the same degree of probity (after paying blackmail to avoid having an extramarital affair exposed, he confessed his infidelity rather than allow his blackmailer to exploit Hamilton’s professional connections for personal gain). Hamilton could plausibly be seen as an eighteenth century meritocrat, a man who believed that talent could rise in the United States, notwithstanding its idiocies, because it represented the first best hope as a where men like him could attain eminence.
Such unsentimental clarity extended to his view of economics. Hamilton had seen first-hand how the parochialism of individual states had hobbled a national war effort. He also saw how Great Britain’s banking system allowed it to finance a global empire, and how its incipient industrialism girded an economy that remained a model for the United States, recent political differences notwithstanding. In his famous 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures, Hamilton affirmed that agriculture was, and would remain, and important pillar of the U.S. economy. But he foresaw a time when manufacturing would take its place beside it, and anticipated this eventuality without the dread of Jefferson and his partisans. Even those who today view Jeffersonianism with admiration on social and political grounds nevertheless concede that Hamilton was right on matters like finance and the future of the American economy. Yet in one more irony, it was Hamilton, not Jefferson, who was swept into irrelevance after the presidential election of 1800. “What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene,” he wrote plaintively to an ally in 1802, a year after he brokered the selection of the hated Jefferson over the even more hated Burr in the topsy-turvy presidential election of 1800. “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” [986] Hamilton’s notorious – and somewhat mysterious – 1804 death at the hands of Burr in duel was a fatalistic coda on a dazzling career that ended in disappointment and tragedy.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Soul man

Elton Trueblood's newly republished Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership remains as inspiring as it did 40 years ago

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

With the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States is (again) riding a wave of popularity. HarperOne, a religious imprint in the larger HarperCollins (and thus FOX) empire, is riding that wave by reissuing this 1973 chestnut by Elton Trueblood (1900-94), a Quaker theologian who held a series of academic posts that included chaplaincies at Harvard and Stanford. It's a shrewd move, and a welcome one. Lessons in Spiritual Leadership, which consists of a half-dozen essays and a new introduction by Gustav Niehbuhr, covers ground that will be familiar to Lincoln specialists. But that is in large measure because Trueblood's analysis has proven prescient.

Trueblood notes what many observers of the Great Emancipator's inner life have considered a conundrum: "Being neither a church member nor antichurch, Lincoln's behavior was often perplexing to both the orthodox and the heretical. While one group was shocked to find him so pious, the other was surprised to find him unimpressed by ecclesiastical rules and practices." But Trueblood finds no paradox here. He notes that only 23 percent of the U.S. population called themselves church members in 1860; if Americans were religious, they weren't necessarily doctrinal. Indeed, he argues that by the end of his presidency, Lincoln's loose denominational affiliation (he paid dues at a Presbyterian church) actually gave him more credibility among clergy who admired his ecumenicalism.

Nor does Trueblood put much stock in Lincoln's former law partner William Herndon's dismissals of Lincoln's religiosity, because even if an accurate description of his early life (an assertion many subsequent observers have considered dubious, though rumors of infidelity dogged Lincoln in adulthood, most famously in his 1846 congressional campaign against Methodist minister Peter Cartwright), Trueblood believes Lincoln took a decisive turn toward faith in the White House. That faith rested on a foundation of deep familiarity with the Bible, documented here with multiple references to how Lincoln's language cited, evoked, alluded or playfully rewrote scripture.

In the last two decades, a number of important scholars -- Garry Wills, Allen Guelzo, and Ronald White, among others -- have all traced a deeply spiritual vein in Lincoln's political vision, much of it rooted in the hard-shell Calvinist currents in his Baptist childhood. (Trueblood believes Quakers in particular were a particular source of succor and influence.) What's perhaps distinctive to Trueblood's analysis is his assertion that the summer of 1862 was the crucible of Lincoln's religious life, the turning point in his personal development and as a result the turning point in conduct of the war. Lincoln, Trueblood believes, concluded that it was God's will that he be an instrument in a larger design of freedom. What's crucial about this sense of mission, however, is how strikingly self-effacing it was: Lincoln saw his job not to do what was right, but to seek what God thought was right, an epistemological modesty notable for the way it fostered compassion and generosity toward others.

Considered more broadly in the context of Civil War historiography, Trueblood's work anticipated what has become a widespread tendency to see Antietam, not Gettysburg, as the true turning point in the Civil War. Antietam gave Lincoln a political basis to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a political masterstroke that allowed the Union to endure subsequent military setbacks. If there is anywhere Lincoln or anyone since could say it with confidence, here was a moment,  the words of Lincoln's famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union, that right made might.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Degrees of success -- and failure

In College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia University Scholar offers a compelling history lesson 

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Toward the end of this succinctly titled book, American Studies Andrew Delbanco explains that he tried to avoid traditional typologies in rendering his story: it is not a jeremiad, nor an elegy, nor a call to arms. Nor, he says, does it conform to the most common type of writings about the state of liberal arts colleges today: the funeral dirge. Actually, the rhetorical form that most closely matches what he's 's doing here is History. The book is a meditation on the past, its relationship with the present, and how both may inform what may, for better and worse, yet be.

A truly interesting history of just about anything is going to affirm continuity and change. One of the more striking aspects of this book is the way that many of the things we think of as innovations, even improvements, in the traditional college experience are really quite old. Financial aid, efforts to diversify demographically, growth in the size and range of the curriculum: these trends are at least 150 years old, and recent developments are really more quantitative than qualitative. Conversely, many of the less attractive aspects of college life have not disappeared, and have even intensified: economic inequality, discrimination (Asians have replaced Jews as the new "problem") and vague standards of admissions "quality" that accrue largely to the benefit those who are already privileged.

According to Delbanco, the main difference between what liberal arts colleges used to be and what they now are is a religious one -- or, more accurately, the disappearance of religion, and the attendant moral vision, that once went along with it. As he notes, this is not an altogether bad thing: all kinds of bigotry and exclusion attached to it. But if there was a saving grace in the origins of most elite colleges, it was in their Calvinist-tinged assumption that one's status was a God-given gift, the rendering of which neither fully understandable nor earned by human beings. This precept secularized into the concept of noblesse oblige, evident in places like Harvard's Memorial Hall, where a truly striking proportion of undergraduates fought, died, or were injured in the Civil War, or in the efforts of WASPs like Kingman Brewster to shatter the old-boys network at Yale and usher in an Affirmative Action order. What has replaced it, he says, is meritocracy, which, for all its strengths does little to engender humility or responsibility on the part of its beneficiaries. Delbanco is not alone in making this point; writers from Michael Lind to Nicholas Lemann also noted the less lovely side of meritocracy (British writer Michael Young critiqued it in his strikingly prescient 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033, which Delbanco analyzes here). But he does so deftly and resonantly.

Today, Delbanco suggests, the nation's elite colleges (which includes universities like Columbia and Chicago, which have strong undergraduate divisions) find themselves more prosperous than ever -- and more anxious than ever. The amenities are almost literally fabulous. But atomized by faculty with limited loyalty to teaching or their institutions, addicted to donations by corporate interests who place primacy on remunerative applications of information, and lacking a vision by which to evaluate questions that neither lend themselves to scientific calculation nor monetary value, our elite schools are adrift. The best way to begin fixing this problem would be to begin with a constituency that is sometimes forgotten as anything other than a source of revenue: students. Assessing where they are, what they need, and what we can expect of them would be important first steps in reaffirming the social compact that was once their source and justification. To which I say: Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Father of the self-made man

Henry Clay,  great American loser

The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

Stories like those of Franklin and Hamilton dramatized the power of the American Revolution to transform the lives of Founding Fathers, but they were hardly the only ones to benefit from the changes it wrought. The most unvarnished form of possibility took the form of territorial expansion, as the destruction of the Native American balance of power with the French and English allowed Americans to push into places like Ohio, Alabama and Florida. Washington described the United States as an “empire for liberty,” but indigenous leaders from Pontiac to Osceola, who led military resistance to such expansion, would no doubt agree that the nation was really about liberty for empire. Nor were Native peoples consulted in the complex string of real estate transactions that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase. White Americans had vast new territories into which they could bring their families – and in some cases, their slaves – for a quest in which geographic lateral mobility became demographic upward mobility.
The Revolution’s aftermath loosened political strictures as well, particularly in new states that in turn diluted the power of Federalist elite, which controlled the U.S. government in the first decade of the nation’s existence. By the 1830s, the elective franchise, still largely limited to white men, was nevertheless the most expansive in the world, laying the foundations for mass politics and modern political parties.
And then there was the transformation of the economy. The opening of Samuel Slater’s water-powered mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790 marked the opening phase of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. It’s important not to exaggerate its impact at the time – the nation remained overwhelmingly agricultural, and it would be decades before railroads, factories, and banks became facts of everyday life for ordinary Americans – but the outlines for new vistas of opportunity (as well as new forms of economic threats) were taking shape in ways that were increasingly apparent to the people who experienced them.
As we’ve seen, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson became vivid emblems of the self-made man in these nation-building years. But as we’ve also seen, they were in some important respects backward-looking, championing versions of the idea that were perceived as in possible danger, sometimes giving their rhetoric a defensive tone. Hamilton, by contrast, was forward-looking, at least in terms of his vision of the American economy; he was comfortable with the idea of nation built on manufacturing, banking, and urban concentration. The problem with the Hamiltonian vision is that it lacked the democratic flavor, the egalitarian tone, necessary for such ideas to thrive in the nation’s emerging political culture – one in which flavor and tone may actually have mattered more than content. The man who came closest to successfully addressing this problem in the first half of the nineteenth century was one of the best known, and least remembered, politicians in American history. His name was Henry Clay.
Like a lot of politicians of his era, Clay puffed up his Everyman credentials, and like virtually all of them, his claim on that status is relatively weak. He was born in 1777 to lower-tier gentry in Virginia. After his father’s death, Clay’s mother remarried and relocated the family to neighboring Kentucky – in those days the Virginia frontier. The path westward had been blazed by the legendary Daniel Boone, the son of Pennsylvania Quakers who had first explored the territory in the late 1760s amid the military tumult of the era (he fought in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolution). By the 1780s Boone had become a leading figure in the territory, which quickly attracted sufficient population to be admitted along with Vermont as the first two new states to follow the original 13 colonies.
For much of his youth, however, Clay had stayed behind in Virginia.  His stepfather procured a job for him as secretary to Jefferson’s old mentor, George Wythe, who helped train Clay to become a lawyer. In 1797 he relocated near the rest of the family in the rapidly growing town of Lexington, Kenucky, where he settled down, married well, and started a large family. Clay was soon renowned as one of the most effective attorneys in the state.
That’s not all he was renowned for. As was common for a man of his station, Clay loved horses, whiskey and cards. His vitality was matched by his social skills, which proved to be a major asset as his true passion – politics – came into focus. Clay was elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1803, and in turn elected by the legislature to finish out the term of a U.S. senator. In order to take the job, which was for less than a year, Clay had to sidestep some political complications. The first was his age: he was only 29 at the time, months short of the Constitutionally mandated minimum age of thirty. (Nobody seems to have noticed.) A bigger problem was Clay’s decision to represent former vice-president Aaron Burr, who stood accused of conspiracy in Kentucky for an alleged plot to foment war with Mexico. Clay liked Burr and helped him get acquitted of that charge, which was only one of a much more complex plot involving the creation of a rival republic between the United States and Mexico. Clay was apparently unaware of the depths of Burr’s machinations. But at the very least the optics were bad, given that Clay was a staunch Jeffersonian and Jefferson hated Burr, notwithstanding their shared hatred for the now-deceased Hamilton. Clay distanced himself from Burr as soon as he decently could, averting disaster for his political career before it had barely begun.
Even in this initial short-term role as a Senator, Clay made a splashy impression. He was a favorite of First Lady Dolly Madison and a fixture on the Washington social circuit. Clay returned to Kentucky in 1807, and survived a duel of his own over an opponent’s mockery of his proposal that members of the state House of Representatives, of which he was now speaker, only wear suits made of homespun in protest of British naval and commercial policies. In 1810 Clay was again chosen to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. Senator. His ascent was effectively completed when, the following year, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and promptly chosen as Speaker of the House – a feat unequaled before or since. In 1813-14 he was one of the key negotiators in forging the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He and his colleagues typically finished a night of socializing just as John Quincy Adams, the son of Founding Father John Adams, was getting up.
Clay came of age politically in a transitional moment in American history. The Federalists were fading, but no effective opposition to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans had taken shape during the administrations of Jefferson, James Madison, or James Monroe. Some political tensions were generational, others regional, but they had not solidified into new parties. One of Clay’s allies in this phase of his career was his later rival, John Calhoun of South Carolina; the two were among the leaders of the so-called War Hawks advocating a hard line with Britain.
In many respects, Clay was a mainstream politician, but not all his views were quite in step with the majority of his colleagues. Take his stand on slavery. Clay hailed from a slaveholding state, and owned slaves himself. But he was among the charter members of the American Colonization Society when it was founded in 1816. The ACS promoted the end of slavery via the purchase of freedom for slaves and the establishment of an American colony in West Africa, dubbed Liberia, where they could be repatriated. Though antislavery, it was hardly an abolitionist organization; Jefferson was another charter member of the club, which reflected the largely southern orientation of antislavery activity in the early decades of the century. Nor did it amount to much. Perhaps for that reason, Clay paid no serious price for his public position on the issue. But it was not exactly a typical one.
The heart of Clay’s political identity was his economic program, which attracted passionate followers but which also sparked opposition. To put it simply, Clay became the public spokesman for the self-made entrepreneur. Among the most important aspects of his vision was support of the Bank of the United States, an institution founded by Hamilton in 1791 to serve as the repository of the nation’s financial assets and a source of liquidity in the economy. Long hated by Old Republicans, its charter expired in 1811. But Clay was at the forefront of the Madison administration’s effort to revive it as part of a larger effort to spur national economic development. He was also prominent in pushing for tariffs on foreign goods, which would make them more expensive and thus promote American manufacturing as a lower-cost alternative. Clay was hardly alone in advocating such measures; New England allies like J.Q. Adams and Daniel Webster were part of this ideological coalition, as was – for a little while longer – Calhoun, who by the 1830s became the darling of the South Carolina plantation elite.
It is one of the ironies of antebellum politics that while the Federalist faction led by Hamilton was dead by the 1820s, Hamilton’s ideas were resurrected within what was still a Jeffersonian political universe, one in which even figures like the son of his old rival Adams could operate comfortably as a diplomat in the Jefferson and Monroe administrations. Perhaps even more ironic is that Clay, who came of age as a staunch Jeffersonian, nevertheless became as a latter-day Hamiltonian. The difference – and it was a key one – is that Clay embraced such policies without the condescension and hostility that had characterized the Federalists. To be sure, this didn’t win over everyone – Old Republican John Randolph complained Clay “out-Hamiltons Hamilton.” [Heider 3077] But Clay’s social skills and penchant for finding common ground gave him an effectiveness that would result in his nickname “the Great Compromiser” – a moniker that was largely, though not entirely, admiring.
 Of course even allies compete. In 1824, Adams, Clay and Calhoun all nursed presidential ambitions (Calhoun, who was the least competitive, deferred his). But all three found themselves facing the unexpectedly powerful candidacy of Andrew Jackson, who received the most votes in the election, though not enough to clinch the Electoral College. Adams prevailed in that tally, apparently because Clay threw his support in exchange for appointment as Secretary of State (a move bitterly attacked by Jacksonians as a “corrupt bargain”). In 1828 Jackson trounced Adams, and ushered in a new era of American politics known as the Second Party System. Jackson’s political coalition claimed the mantel of Jefferson and became known as the Democrats.
Clay became the leader of the opposition, known as the Whigs, a name that harkened back to the reformist wing of a British party that had provided much of the ideological justification for the American Revolution. Though it was not solely his, Clay became famous for articulating a program that would be forever associated with him and known as “the American System.” The core idea involved the national integration of sectional difference whereby the South would produce raw materials for Northern industrial production. Meanwhile, high tariffs would product American manufacturing, and finance the development of a national infrastructure of roads, canals, and rail, stitching East to West (Clay, befitting his a home state that still had a whiff of the frontier, was known also as “Great Harry of the West”).  Clay’s confrontation with Andrew Jackson would culminate in an epic political fight over the Bank of the United States, which Clay essentially dared Jackson to shut down, and which Jackson did (thereby damaging the U.S. economy, though not until he had left office).
What matters most for our purposes is a speech that Clay, now back in the Senate, delivered in February of 1832 while running for president. An epic three-day disquisition, “In Defense of the American System” ranged widely over a series of topics, most of them too arcane to be remembered. But at one point in his address, Clay uttered a sentence invoking a phrase that became durably famous. “In Kentucky,” he said, “almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”
What we have here is a turning point in American history. It’s not simply Clay’s use of a term – whether or not he coined it, “self-made man” would be forever associated with him – but also that he was calling attention to, and promoting, a fundamental realignment of what success meant in the United States. This becomes plain in the diplomatically phrased ensuing sentences, which pointed to an emerging divide in the nation (typified by the drift of his erstwhile ally Calhoun into an opposing camp). “Comparisons are odious, and, but in defence, would not be made by me,” Clay said, responding to perceptions of industrialists as representing a new breed of economic tyrants. “But is there more tendency to an aristocracy in a manufactory, supporting hundreds of freedmen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less numerous slaves, sustaining, perhaps, only two white families – that of the master and the overseer?”[]
 In the years to come, such rhetorical questions would be the bread and butter of Whig politicians. But again, Clay was a somewhat odd standard-bearer of this new gospel. Whether or not every “manufactory” in Kentucky was in the hands of self-made men, Clay’s home state was not, nor would ever really be, an industrial heartland. Clay was the first American politician to articulate a compelling basis for antislavery in the United States – one rooted in economics rather than morality – but he remained a lifelong slaveholder. Such elements in his background helped make him a uniquely effective in brokering deals like the Compromise of 1820 (a.k.a. the Missouri Compromise) and the Compromise of 1850, both of which forestalled a Civil War relatively few Americans at the time regarded as desirable or inevitable. But Clay’s tendency to split the difference and prevaricate – most vividly on display in 1844, when he refused to take a clear stand on a Mexican War critics regarded as a bonanza for slaveholders – undermined the sense of consistency and trust that he needed to achieve his dream of becoming president, a quest in he failed to attain in a total of four attempts between 1824 and 1844. By the time of his death in 1852, the Whig Party had stretched to the point of collapse over slavery. Dead in the South, it splintered into fragments in the North, the various strands eventually coalescing in the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
As we all know, the Republicans would come to be known as the party of private enterprise. But they began their life in the body politic by promoting business as a civic activity supported and sustained by government intervention. Perhaps more important, this emerging business culture was justified in terms of the way it functioned as an alternative to a plantation economy that turned inward, away from a government it always regarded with suspicion, because government seemed like the only force potentially great enough to take slavery away.
Hamilton and Clay, then, were prophets of a new day. But the man who more than any other embodied not only the emergence of a new economic order – the man who in the popular imagination embodied the essence of the self-made man in the eyes of most Americans – was Abraham Lincoln. In our day, the self-made man is typically conceived as a private sector entrepreneur. But even those who see the archetype as a fundamentally commercial one make room for Lincoln, who resounds through the ages as the quintessential example of the poor boy made good, in just about every sense of the term.

Next: A. Lincoln, Henry Clay man