Summer 2010

Pulse of the People

– Daniel Walker Howe

Last year, the British production company that made what has become the popular series America: The Story of Us for the History Channel invited me to review the script, which treats the invention of America across 400 years. I advised against the use of the term “American national character” on the grounds that it was misleading, since all Americans don’t have the same character, and the term elides variations in race, class, region, religion, ethnicity, gender, and politics. In any case, it was academically unfashionable. Now, Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America has rehabilitated the expression “American character,” at least for me.

Made in America deliberately provides a view from Middle America. There is little about such academically fashionable subgroups as African Americans and organized labor, nothing about Hispanics or gays. There is some women’s history, but it’s more about the pioneer spirit than the suffrage movement or glass ceilings. The book describes a culture of abundance that took its start from the exploitation of a vast, rich continent whose previous occupants had just been (all too conveniently) decimated by unfamiliar diseases introduced by the settlers. Americans have always been a “people of plenty,” as the great historian David Potter characterized them in his 1954 book of that name: eager for material possessions and lucky enough to have them widely available.

The book is a sociologist’s take on American social history, a distillation of Fischer’s vast reading. The copious notes, extensive index, and list of works cited take up as much space as the text itself. But Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is not overwhelmed by his ambitious undertaking. He writes not only for his fellow academics but also for the general literate public.

One of Fischer’s major arguments is that mainstream American culture has not changed fundamentally in 400 years. From the settlement of Jamestown to today, America has been about seizing opportunity and trying to make it big. Fischer favors the term “voluntarism” to describe this aspect of the American character. It is predicated on individualism—the assumption that each individual is sovereign and self-directed (in Thomas Jefferson’s language, possessed of “inalienable rights,” including “the pursuit of happiness”) rather than defined—and confined—by group memberships. But individuals find that they can most effectively pursue happiness by voluntarily associating with one another, a model that influenced not only the creation of local, state, and federal governments, but also the churches of the Protestant majority, innumerable political and reform movements, social and professional societies, charities, and clubs. At length, voluntarism even redefined marriage as a companionate association between equals, subject to severance by mutual consent.

The “American character” began life in colonial times, confined to a minority of the population. Only white, male property owners over the age of 21 were accounted full citizens and responsible agents. They alone could vote, because they alone were self-directed individuals capable of rendering independent judgment on public issues. All others—women, employees, servants, and slaves—were dependents. Gradually, more and more groups and classes have been admitted into this circle of American privilege and responsibility and have adopted its outlook and perks. One by one, employees, women, blacks, and people between the ages of 18 and 21 have been granted civic participation and allowed to function as sovereign individuals. Immigrants from other cultures have usually willingly assimilated into the voluntaristic American one.

Fischer’s insight into American culture and character just about demolishes the interpretation, popular with some historians in the 1980s and ’90s, that production for the market was somehow forced upon America’s contented subsistence farmers during the first half of the 19th century. In fact, we know that Americans participated extensively in global markets as early as colonial times, importing, for example, porcelain and steel in return for American timber and tobacco. Indeed, colonial Americans protested parliamentary taxation without representation by boycotting their accustomed purchases from British merchants. So great was the American market for British imports that these merchants invariably interceded with Parliament to placate the colonists.

Later, industrialization and related economic diversification aided the development of the American character by providing a much wider range of occupational choices. Nineteen out of 20 Americans lived on farms or in villages of less than 2,500 persons when the first census was taken in 1790. Economic opportunity beckoned from the new cities and towns of the 19th century. Young people, male and female, jumped at the chance to leave the farm and their fathers’ control for the excitement and diversity of urban life.

Toward the end of his book, Fischer devotes a chapter to the American “mentality,” in which he discusses American self-determination. The archetypal American, of whom Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln are good examples, engaged in a process of deliberate self-construction. Such persons set out to cultivate personal qualities including conscientiousness, prudence, and sensibility while suppressing unworthy passions such as anger. To be a “self-made” American in their sense meant something far more profound than just success in business. Outsiders such as women and African Americans legitimated their right to inclusion by engaging in the same kind of self-construction, as Margaret Fuller and Frederick Douglass did in the 19th century. Modern self-help enthusiasts the likes of Dale Carnegie and Oprah Winfrey are the heirs to this once-proud tradition.

Fischer says little about religious sects, although they illustrate his point about voluntarism. Religious pluralism has flourished in America largely because Catholics and Jews opted into the American culture that was originally shaped by voluntaristic Protestantism. Religious groups that don’t fit into the mainstream do pose problems. Should American Muslims have the right to arrange their daughters’ marriages? Should Christian Scientists be allowed to deny their children medical care? Should young-earth fundamentalists be able to wedge their views into the teaching of science in public schools?

Fischer quite deliberately avoids party politics in his treatment of American history. He does, however, address the decline in voter participation during the 20th century that is so often deplored by commentators on American society. In the 19th century, as much as 80 percent of the qualified electorate might participate in elections, whereas during the 20th century a 60 percent turnout came to be the best one could hope for. Fischer interprets this as a reassertion of Americans’ self-seeking individualism. The corrupt, boisterous local machine politics of the late 19th century gave voters a personal interest in elections. The politics of today seems remote and boring, especially in comparison with the alternative excitements available from professional sports and the mass media. The reformers of the Progressive Era, who made American politics more honest and less violent, deprived it of much of its appeal.

A continuing preoccupation of individualistic Americans, according to Fischer, has been their quest for security. This sounds surprising, given his emphasis on their eager capitalism, but he makes a persuasive case. A focus on physical health and longevity is one form this obsession takes, and of course these have improved over time with advances in cleanliness, medicine, and public health. Another form of security is personal safety. Nineteenth-century American society was very violent; murders, riots, lynchings, duels, and the chronic brutality associated with slavery, wife beating, and the corporal punishment of children were all common. Life became safer in the 20th century, as it did elsewhere in the West. Even the upward turn in crime that began in the 1960s has been reversed, and, at its worst, still did not equal the violence of the 19th century. (Oddly, Fischer does not address Americans’ current fear of terrorists.) Material abundance helped provide another form of security: a comfortable old age. The benefits available from the New Deal’s Social Security program as well as private insurance companies have largely substituted for the support adult children once provided to their dependent elderly parents.

Much as I admire Fischer’s achievement, he has not convinced me of one of his other major threads of argument: that America is “exceptional,” with a culture like no other country’s. Acquisitiveness and conspicuous consumption are by no means peculiar to the United States and its colonial precursors. Indeed, when early Americans aspired to commercialism and refinement, they imported European goods and tastes. The quest for security, which Fischer makes a major component of the distinctively American culture, seems to me common to most human societies. And the story Fischer tells of people migrating away from rural areas to industrializing cities in search of job opportunities, far from being peculiar to the United States, is repeated today in virtually every developing country. Fischer emphasizes that the hold of religion—with the exception of Roman Catholicism—has not declined overall in America the way it has in most Western societies. But he does not distinguish evangelical Protestantism, which has boomed, from the traditional denominations of mainline Protestantism, which have waned considerably.

Having taught in both American and English universities, I am struck by the international quality of student life and culture. To be sure, this similarity is no doubt the result of American popular culture’s eager embrace by young people overseas. But it doesn’t leave America quite as exceptional as it was in the days when Alexis de Tocqueville visited and recorded its ways with wonder.

Whether or not the United States is unique, there does seem to be an American character type, and the belief that one can make it however one will—to become rich, popular, healthy, smart—seems a major feature of it. The British students I knew laughingly described their American counterparts: “Americans think death is optional.”

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Daniel Walker Howe won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2008 for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, a volume in the Oxford History of the United States. He is a professor emeritus at both the University of Oxford and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Reviewed: Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Claude S. Fischer, University of Chicago Press, 511 pp, 2010.

Photo via A. Davey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0