HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

Lecture 4

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


Having finished with slavery and the pro-slavery argument, Professor Blight heads North today. The majority of the lecture deals with the rise of the Market Revolution in the North, in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Blight first describes the causes of the Market Revolution–the rise of capital, a transportation revolution–and then moves to its effects on the culture and consciousness of antebellum northerners. Among these effects were a riotous optimism mixed with a deep-rooted fear of change, an embrace of the notions of progress and Manifest Destiny, and the intensification of the divides between North and South.

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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

HIST 119 - Lecture 4 - A Northern World View: Yankee Society, Antislavery Ideology and the Abolition Movement

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

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. [I don’t want anybody to think that] 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.

Chapter 2. Uriah Parmelee, the Yalie [00:04:40]

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 1st 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 [regiment] — 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 1st, 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.

Chapter 3. The Market Revolution of the North: Mobility, Child Labor, Wealth [00:12:54]

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 adjusts his slides]

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.

Chapter 4. The Idea of Manifest Destiny, the Reality of Change, and the Transportation Revolution [00:27:12]

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.

Chapter 5. Contradictions of Progress in American Literature [00:37:23]

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 —

Chapter 6. Change as Precursor to Reform: A Historical Perspective [00:43:22]

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.

[end of transcript]

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