— Business —
The Founding Fathers of the United States began with great hopes and expectations for the future. They believed the citizens of their new republic could attain a higher level of personal and public behavior, as well as acquire more refined and elevated tastes. Reflecting the prevailing views of their time, they assumed this would come about under the leadership and influence of what they called “a natural aristocracy”—not an aristocracy composed merely of men with high birth and much wealth, but one that contained persons conspicuous for high talent and moral virtue, who would occupy the positions of government, establish the tone of society, and set the standards of conduct both public and private.
“Wealth, in even the
most improbable cases,
manages to convey the
aspect of intelligence.”
One Founding Father who espoused these ideas with notable warmth, pertinacity, and imagination was Thomas Jefferson. He was acutely aware of how far his provincial countrymen fell short. His letters complained about such things as loutish manners displayed at public assemblies or music sunk in a “state of deplorable barbarism.” But he was confident of the future. Unlike his more prudent and skeptical contemporaries, he entertained no doubts as to the latent capacities of the common people. “Under our democratic stimulants,” he declared in a typical burst of optimism, “every man” of later generations will be “potentially an athlete in body and an Aristotle in mind.”
Such were the notions of Jefferson and the Founders. Ordinary Americans of the time were heading in a much different direction. Far from aspiring to noble pursuits and lofty virtues, they were obsessively involved in a general scramble for money. “Society is full of excitement,” one of the panegyrists of the emerging generation later declared. “Some are sinking, others rising, others balancing,” some inching toward the top, others plunging toward the bottom. Multitudes were migrating westward in search of better economic opportunities in the recently opened territories. One French visitor marveled at their willingness to endure the privations and dangers of the frontier in their pursuit of wealth and called it nothing less than “heroic.”
As roads and turnpikes were constructed in the 1790s, then canals in the 1820s, and finally railroads in the 1830s, the flow of merchandise quickened and spread, and the buying and selling increased. New words were coined to describe the people and their activities: “businessman” (1820s) and “self-made man” (1830s). A German immigrant described the country as “one gigantic workshop” with a sign over its entrance: “No admission here except on business.”
As commerce grew in popularity and practice, the moral standards that regulated it became increasingly weak and elastic. Since nearly everyone believed they should be making money, many decided that to do so they could employ whatever means were available. From the egalitarian assumption that any legal occupation was reputable, it was a small step to the conclusion that any enterprise which returned a profit without violating the letter of the law was permissible, if not laudable. Foreign visitors, especially from France, remarked at the nonchalance with which Americans treated bankruptcy. In Europe, a single failure of this kind stained a man’s reputation for life. In the United States, it was considered little more than a temporary setback and an occasional misfortune, one of the common hazards of a business career.
The line that separated shrewd and sharp dealing from outright fraud was not one that Americans drew with any precision. Along with the growth of free enterprise came a proliferation of swindling, which was reflected in the simultaneous popularity of two newly invented nouns, “businessman” and “confidence man.” “Man...was made to diddle,” declared a struggling author in a disquisition on one of several contemporary synonyms for a common practice. This was indeed true of the American, foreign observers agreed, often in tones of indignation and disgust. According to the complaint of one Scotsman, “Quackery and bold pretension in every form meet with extraordinary encouragement and success.”
Far from deploring such behavior, Americans regarded it with amusement and even admiration. They enjoyed hearing about the ingenious ways by which some of their more enterprising countrymen managed to separate people from their money. Stories of clever frauds were widely circulated and eagerly repeated. P. T. Barnum, the prince of tricksters, managed to turn the hoax into a form of public entertainment. It was said that after he had humbugged an audience, they willingly paid him to explain how he had done it.
“When there’s money
to be made, Americans
will forgive anyone
just about anything.”
The Founding Fathers who lived long enough to witness these practices were not in the least amused. They were revolted to see what the rising generation of Americans had become, not high-minded and virtuous, but moneygrubbing and often dishonest. Among the voices of complaint, Thomas Jefferson’s was prominent. In 1813, he warned of the advance of “commercial avarice and corruption.” By 1819, he was speaking of “a general demoralization” in which fraud was “filching from industry its honest earnings.”
The young nation paid no more heed to Jefferson and his disillusioned contemporaries than it did to its foreign critics. The passion for profit that it exhibited in the beginning became a settled characteristic of its maturity and has persisted to the present day. According to popular opinion in the 1830s, the first question a Yankee asked himself whenever he made a new acquaintance was whether the two of them could agree to some business deal. A century and a half later, a Swiss banker admitted that he could not meet an American, “even a tourist,” without thinking, “What is he going to try to sell me?”
In 1795, a visiting French aristocrat learned that the highest praise one American could bestow upon another was “clever fellow, damned sharp.” In 1842, an English novelist reported with some asperity that being considered a “smart man” excused the worst behavior. Then as now, Americans take it for granted that a person will apply whatever brainpower he can muster to the task of acquiring money. Consequently, the more money he has, the more intelligent he must be, and the reverse. This assumption underlies that time-honored retort, “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” as well as the acerbic observation by a modern American economist that “wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.”
In addition to flexible moral principles, American business from the outset has been characterized by blunt and coarse manners. Since making money was an activity in which so much of the population took so active a part, the accepted tone of behavior settled at a level that was low enough to accommodate most everyone. Businessmen are in a hurry. They want to close a deal and get on to the next one. They have no time for elaborate courtesies, subtle procedures, or lengthy sociable talk. Often they strike the pose and employ the language of rampant lower-class egotism. “Aggressive” selling, for example, is viewed as forthright, virile, and efficacious.
Such behavior is not acceptable in Europe and other traditional societies. There the brash, pushy American is rejected as an ill-bred intruder. He finds, to his great surprise, that even though he has the best product at the lowest price, he may fail to win the contract. He does not realize that who makes an offer and the way in which it is made are fully as important as the substance of the offer itself, if not more so. Things are different in the United States. Not all or even most American businessmen are low and vulgar themselves, but they will tolerate lowness and vulgarity from others in the process of doing business. As a book on international commercial practices remarked, “When there’s money to be made, Americans will forgive anyone just about anything.” One might call it equality before the dollar.
— Politics —
A similar course of development occurred in the world of politics. The Founding Fathers believed most definitely in government “for the people,” to some degree in government “by the people,” but not at all in government “of the people.” They thought that the people should select those of the social elite who would do the governing. This was the idea behind Thomas Jefferson’s well-known and apparently puzzling statement that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers.” He saw the role of newspapers as that of educating the public, so that they would select the best candidates for office and not be led astray by ignorance and demagogy.
The idea of government by a natural aristocracy did not survive the Founding Fathers. By the time their generation had retired from political life, it had become a widely accepted opinion that every man had the right, not only to vote, but to be a candidate, even for the presidency. A popular platitude asserted that anyone who was able to manage a private household could adequately discharge the duties of office. The general public believed that they would be genuinely represented only by those who were like themselves, not by those who were their superiors.
Andrew Jackson embodied the new traits of political leadership. During his tenure, the White House was open to a stream of uncouth visitors, and the president went out of his way to greet and converse amiably with the most humble of his fellow citizens. His wealthy and socially prominent opponents, the Whigs, saw the way the tide was moving, adopted the tactics of the Democratic Party, and put forward candidates like Davy Crockett and William Henry Harrison as plain men of the people. An English novelist who was visiting America at the time claimed that the slightest display of superiority, from building too grand a house to wearing too luxurious a coat, could lose an election. By 1842, a wealthy Philadelphian asserted that to be successful a politician had to “drink and roar and talk roughly.”
“You can’t use
tact with a
is a hog!”
Posing as just an ordinary person—“an ordinary Joe”—has become one of the most common techniques employed in contests for public office. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan were prominent masters of it, but it is something in which every candidate has had to display at least a basic degree of competence. At times the requirements can be quite exacting. Not just revealing cultural sophistication or displaying urbane suavity but merely being too articulate can lose votes. When running for president in 1996, Bob Dole found that he had to make a deliberate effort to curb his brilliant wit because the public disliked someone who was so obviously far above the common standard of clumsy speech.
Not merely the style of leadership but the entire character of political life underwent a fundamental change during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The Founding Fathers had thought that those who devoted themselves to public service should stand above material gain and partisan rivalry and should promote the highest interests of the entire nation. For the successors of the Founding Fathers, in contrast, politics became simply a job, and not a very elevated one. It centered around the operations of newly developed party machinery, which ran campaigns and divided up the spoils of victory. The issues that dominated most elections were, not high principles of state or the clash of social ideologies, but conflicting financial interests and rival personalities.
This jostling of low people with low manners intent on low purposes naturally depressed the level of political discourse. During the last years of their lives, the Founding Fathers were dismayed at the increasingly loud and numerous voices of petty and dirty squabbling. Thomas Jefferson, the former champion of newspapers, expressed himself in pained and pungent terms as to the sordid practices of the contemporary press and recommended prosecutions for libel as a corrective. A few years later, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recoiled in disgust from partisan journalism that shamelessly invaded the private lives of its opponents and broadcast the vilest insults and slanders.
The tenor of public life and the tenure of public office reached their nadir in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, when Mark Twain called Congress the only “distinctly native American criminal class,” and an officer of President Grant’s cabinet exclaimed, “You can’t use tact with a congressman! A congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!” Things improved somewhat in the Progressive Era with the appearance of outstanding statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But politics has continued to retain its shabby reputation. Politicians know this, and one of their favorite tactics is to denounce government whenever they are running for government office, to claim that they themselves are not hardened politicos but honest ordinary citizens serving the public interest, and to profess that they are strangers to the insider culture of bureaucratic boondoggles and backroom deals.
— Religion —
Serenity and loftiness characterized the religion of the Founding Fathers. They believed that man’s utilization of his higher faculties (such as the exercise of reason and meditation, the practice of science, the contemplation of art, the performance of music) led to a deeper understanding of God and his works, as well as to better conduct in one’s personal life and better treatment of one’s fellow creatures. In establishing religious freedom for the nation, the Founding Fathers assumed that their own principles and practices would be adopted and advanced by the rest of the citizenry. Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian”—the most cerebral and rarefied of the major contemporary denominations.
The American people, especially the young, seized their religious freedom and began behaving in ways that were not in the least serene and lofty. They had no use for science or art, for subtle argument or rational persuasion. It was raw emotion and wild vision that they desired and exhibited, with anyone who experienced what he took to be divine inspiration claiming the right to interpret the Bible and to preach publicly. A trained theologian asserting a superior understanding of scripture from his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was as much an anathema in this egalitarian world as the son of a wealthy landowner asserting that his privileged upbringing entitled him to public office.
Inventiveness and ignorance combined to produce a farrago of doctrines (often dubious) and rituals (often bizarre). Sects sprang up, multiplied, and subdivided. Members of one group quarreled with those of another, and at times the rivalry became so intense as to result in physical violence. “All Christendom has been decomposed,” exclaimed a contemporary in bewilderment and dismay, “broken in pieces” by the “fiery furnace of democracy.“
One “got religion”
just as one “got” a
This new religious tendency had a blatantly social and collective nature. It spread by contagion, and those infected were said to have “got religion,” just as one “got” a communicable disease. A customer at a tailor’s shop in the 1820s, for example, found his new coat was not ready because “the principal workmen had got religion that morning and could not finish it.” People gathered in groups, both indoors (“protracted meetings”) and outdoors (“camp meetings”), under the leadership of preachers with a single qualification for the business at hand. They were often poorly educated and occasionally even illiterate, but they knew how to move a crowd and to galvanize its members into uninhibited, physical acts of repentance and ecstasy. At a large camp meeting during its livelier moments, people in various motions (jumping, jerking, whirling, dancing, running, falling, rolling) combined with the noises they made (groaning, sobbing, singing, shouting, screaming, howling, barking) to create a scene of weltering turmoil and uproarious pandemonium.
Foreign visitors, along with many respectable Americans, were appalled. Especially offensive was the sight of women, who often outnumbered men as participants, venting their intimate emotions in public. Jefferson was among those who condemned both the “fanaticism” in general and in particular the unmistakably “amatory and carnal” overtones in the female professions of faith. He had a personal grievance as well. The founding of the University of Virginia, a project on which he had labored hard and long, nearly came to grief when a key appointment to the faculty, made at his personal urging, was condemned as hostile to religion.
Many of the clergymen in the settled parishes of traditional denominations felt an acute distaste for the new forms of worship. But they realized that these were widely popular and were growing. People wanted an exciting religion, not “corpse-cold Unitarianism,” and in this democratic society, where a minister’s livelihood depended on the voluntary contributions of the churchgoers rather than a state subsidy for an “established” religion, it was apparent that the people would get their way.
“Most American religion,
of whatever camp, is
Eventually an informal compromise evolved. Clergymen permitted, encouraged, and even conducted more animated services, while charismatic preachers restrained the more frenzied and grotesque actions of their audiences. People from the higher levels of society began to attend and to promote “revivals,” as they had come to be called. Rich and powerful Whigs, in the same way that they adopted the popular style of the common man as a candidate for office, also embraced popular religion as a useful and effective ingredient in their political campaigns. Through the course of the Nineteenth Century, sects that began as bands of enthusiasts slowly grew into organized and orderly denominations. During the Twentieth Century, the excesses of the camp meeting and the hellfire sermon were pushed to the margins of social life.
But religion in the United States has continued to retain some distinct marks of its low origins. Just as American businessmen and politicians have often resorted to underhanded methods of accumulating for themselves the goods of the world, so have American preachers. With the rise of revivalist religion, persons of modest origins who had an aptitude for charismatic persuasion found that they were able to become successful evangelists, and some of them went on to employ their new status and effective talent in the extraction of money and sex from their followers. Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry is the classic depiction of a familiar type that has persisted to the present day. The sexual and financial scandals that ended the careers of several famous televangelists in the 1980s were a spectacular example of something that often happens, with less publicity, to the shepherds of smaller flocks.
Doctrines, as well as practices, have reflected demotic tendencies. As one literary critic admitted with a sigh, “Most American religion, of whatever camp...is viciously anti-intellectual.” His regret is echoed by that of one rare sophisticate among the devout: “I wish I lived in a world where it was possible to be religious and think at the same time.”
The churches of Europe long ago accepted the theory of evolution, since the subtlety of trained theologians has managed to reconcile the discoveries of Darwin with the teachings of faith. Believers in the United States do not follow educated theological leadership, perhaps any more now than in the past. Their ideas of human and cosmic creation express the crudest kind of Biblical literalism, which rejects contrary scientific evidence out of hand. Opinion polls consistently show that about half the national population thinks God created the earth and mankind within the past 10,000 years. One study in Minnesota found that 40 percent of high school biology instructors did not teach evolution, because either the local community rejected it or they did themselves, or both.
— Culture —
The Founding Fathers wanted to elevate all aspects of cultural life and to promote the social education and personal cultivation that would bring this about. Thomas Jefferson was especially active in the effort. He devised a plan for selecting talented poor boys and schooling them at public expense, a process that he described as raking the geniuses “from the rubbish.” His chief labor in the years after his presidency was to found the University of Virginia, which he imagined would become the training ground for a natural aristocracy of ability and virtue.
But the egalitarian trend of the nation was moving in a different direction. It had been Jefferson himself who declared that if one presented “a moral case to a ploughman and a professor, the former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” Jefferson’s fellow countrymen simply extended this democratic principle from the sphere of ethics to every other aspect of life. Already in 1771, a clergyman in Philadelphia observed that “the poorest laborer...thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiments in matters of religion and politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or the scholar.” By the first decades of the Nineteenth Century, notions about the worth of the common man and the value of his opinions were well on their way to becoming part of the national ideology.
“The public is
wiser than its
It was based on the premise that every human being possessed innate, natural faculties which were fully equal, if not superior, to those produced by deliberate nurture and external influence. This meant that on any subject the judgment of an uncultivated and unlearned man was equal to that of a cultivated and learned one, and it followed that on any occasion a majority of ordinary citizens was superior to an elite minority. “The public is wiser than its wisest critic,” proclaimed one ardent theoretician of the new democracy. “It is impossible that everybody should be mistaken,” asserted a character in a contemporary novel.
These stated principles reflected assumptions that the American people were already putting into practice. Anything above the taste or beyond the comprehension of the common man was denounced as “aristocratic” and dismissed as worthless if not pernicious. The legislature of North Carolina, for example, refused to fund a university on the ground that it would create “an aristocracy of the learned.” Education beyond the elementary knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic was ridiculed as “obsolete monkish bigotry.” Even the professions, like law and medicine, did not escape attack. Restricting their practice to those with degrees and licenses was condemned as an underhanded way of increasing the profits of the practitioners, who were charged with confusing and exploiting the public by a screen of obscurantism and obfuscation.
People with cultivated tastes or professional credentials reacted with indignation and dismay. One college president exclaimed in exasperation that he expected to see the publication of books with titles such as, “Every Man His Own Lawyer,” “Every Man His Own Physician,” and “Every Man His Own Clergyman and Confessor.” Thomas Jefferson, who throughout his life had endeavored to introduce his countrymen to the best of European culture, was taken aback at the younger generation’s rejecting “the information of books” and “the knowledge acquired in past ages.” They acted as if they “acquire all learning in their mothers’ womb and bring it into the world ready-made.” He consoled himself with the conviction that they were just passing through a phase of youthful folly.
Jefferson subsequently had the misfortune to encounter the ignorance and intractability of American adolescents in a particularly aggressive form, although it was not at all unusual for college life of those times. A group of students at his University of Virginia put on disguises and publicly expressed xenophobic contempt for those among their professors who happened to be foreigners. The noisy demonstration culminated in the youths exchanging blows with faculty members. When an assembly was held on campus a few days later, it required the intimidating presence of three former presidents of the United States (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) to induce the culprits to confess. Jefferson was additionally distressed and embarrassed to find one of his own relatives among the guilty.
Mistrust of anything and everything above the level of ordinary understanding has developed into a distinctive national characteristic. Claims of experts and expertise provoke initial skepticism rather than automatic deference. Even in a highly practical field like agriculture, scientific innovations and educated technicians have had to fight their way to recognition and respect against popular prejudice and suspicion.
[Culture's] old snob
appeal has faded
In fields that produce no obvious or immediate social benefits, the going has been much rougher. From the beginning, Americans stigmatized the arts as useless, snobbish, and effeminate—the occupation of unproductive “aristocrats” and society women. People with aesthetic tastes learned to conceal them if they wanted to get along in daily life. Conditions have hardly changed with the passage of well over a century and a half. Compared with European nations, the United States government today spends a minute portion of its budget on high culture. The National Endowment for the Arts receives less funding than the marching bands of the armed services.
To counteract the disparagement of their fellow countrymen, many artists have cultivated a pose of aggressive lower-class masculinity. Hemingway was the most prominent example in this line, but others, like Jack London, had preceded him, and many more have followed. A similar, less combative stance might be called Whitmanesque, in which the writer demonstrates that he is no refined connoisseur or exclusive elitist by accepting and celebrating everything low and commonplace. Being able to boast of lower-class origins and experience is a great advantage. Before achieving recognition for his poetry and short stories, one author worked a number of menial jobs, which prompted a critic to comment that “most writers would give a right arm for such authentic redneck credentials,” as if the experience of low life were an asset rather than a liability to someone creating high art.
In recent decades, the practitioners of elevated culture have found refuge in colleges and universities. As an increasingly complex technological society demands more specialized knowledge and more trained specialists, the resulting boom in higher education has been so great as to include even those areas of intellect with little or no claim to practical application. It has been said that there are more poets and philosophers at work on American campuses today than there have ever been in the entire world at any other time. This is not the result of an increase in the public appetite for such forms of thought and literature. On the contrary, the audience of poets and philosophers is largely confined to their colleagues and students. Their work attracts as little notice from people outside the field as if it were the product of some esoteric scientific specialty.
While high culture survives in its artificial and isolated situation, American popular culture has gone from triumph to triumph. So powerful and pervasive is its appeal, it has penetrated even the higher social levels. People with pretensions of sophistication and superiority used to complain that they were unable to shield their children from its influence. In recent years, they have given up the struggle and embraced the former enemy. The interminable lamentation about “mass culture,” which was heard during the 1950s, has ceased long ago. The old snob appeal has faded, if not entirely disappeared. It used to be the customary practice of certain people (upper-middle-class people in particular, who want to distinguish themselves from the rest of the middle class) to affect an interest in the fine arts. Today their new tactic is to applaud the kind of pop art that is low or weird enough to bewilder and repel ordinary middle-class squares.
Juries have no
people “who stay
home and read.”
Among the various forms of popular culture, sports command the most attention, the strongest allegiance, and the most sustained devotion. It is something that almost all Americans—at least almost all American men—at every level in society follow with avid delight. It provides a subject of ready conversation for those, like blacks and whites, who have little else in common. It has enlivened ordinary talk, especially in the business world, with numerous metaphors and similes. Its shared knowledge is taken so confidently for granted that soldiers on the battlefront have used it to distinguish friend from foe.
Since both sports and education are activities of youth, the two have naturally come into contact, and the result has been distinctively American. In the entrance hall of a typical high school, a case of athletic trophies is on display; there are no trophies for academic achievement. The popular author James Michener recalled that the grown-ups of his hometown often praised him for his performance on the school basketball team; no one praised him for his equally outstanding scholastic performance. That was in the 1920s, and after the passage of over half a century, Michener concluded that “across America things are not much different.” This was recently confirmed—if confirmation were needed—by a journalist who contrasted the celebration lavished on inner-city boys who become sports stars with the public’s indifference to those who succeed academically.
When athletics encountered education at the college level in the late Nineteenth Century, Ambrose Bierce summed up the outcome in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Academe, an ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy (from academe), a modern school where football is taught.” James Michener pointed out that nowhere else in the world do institutions of higher education provide sports events for the entertainment of the public. Although the scholarly side of universities became increasingly important in the second half of the Twentieth Century as the source of technical knowledge and technicians, sports has continued to hold its own on campus. A top coach often receives a higher salary than the college president. At some public universities, he makes more than the governor of the state.
Even posthumously, the life of the mind is judged inferior to the life of the body. There is a special kind of insurance adjustor who puts a dollar value on the victim in a case of wrongful death, which then may go before a jury. Various characteristics of the victim’s former existence can move the estimate up or down. A journalist who interviewed one of these adjustors suggested himself as a hypothetical example and mentioned his “culturally rich” background. “Culture doesn’t make a difference,” replied the adjustor. Juries have no sympathy for people “who stay home and read.” But if he had been “an outdoorsman,” his “value would double.”
— Manners —
A gentleman in the Eighteenth Century was supposed to display an unaffected grace of deportment, as well as the poise, dignity, and self-possession that made him “equally at home among lords or gamblers.” It was this combination of strength and finesse that Lord Chesterfield recommended repeatedly to his hapless son with the famous phrase suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. The Founding Fathers were themselves eighteenth-century gentlemen—or at least their provincial equivalents and imitators. When they talked about improving manners, they had the ideals of the English upper class in mind. In their vision of the new republic, a natural aristocracy would assume the role of social as well as political leadership and by its example would point the way to a more polished standard of etiquette for the rest of their countrymen.
It did not happen. By the 1830s, the word “gentleman” was being applied to everyone, and at best it referred to nothing more than ordinary politeness and civility. Americans liked their manners plain and minimal. They addressed each other by their first names and preferred to reduce those names to words of one syllable. From simplicity it was an easy step to vulgarity. If foreign visitors were occasionally charmed by the former, the latter left them aghast. Travelers’ accounts repeatedly exclaimed at repulsive table manners, habitual profanity, copious drinking, and the continuous chewing and spitting of tobacco.
This conduct was understandable. The new democracy was indulging in its new freedom. No longer constrained by deference to their betters, ordinary people were acting as they pleased. One may recall the poor man’s response to the fairy’s gift of three wishes: all the grog in the world, all the tobacco in the world, and—after some hesitation—a little more grog and tobacco. When a change in the social order releases people who were formerly repressed and deprived, they react by pigging out, as they did in the newly founded Soviet Union and as they had done a century earlier in the newly founded United States. During its first decades, the young American nation consumed more liquor per capita than before or since—“the alcoholic republic,” as one historian called it.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, the Founding Fathers were horrified when they saw what their creation has become. They had dreamed of a nation of aristocrats—high-minded, suave, and cultured. Instead, they beheld a population of coarse men who were out to make money by hook or by crook, who elected politicians as low and mercenary as themselves if not more so, who liked their religion noisy and animated, who detested fancy-pants sophisticates of any kind, and who boozed, cussed, chawed, and spat.
Thomas Jefferson shared the disillusion, insofar as a man of his irrepressible optimism was able to do so. He had the misfortune to live long enough to catch an unsavory whiff of the Jackson-for-President movement, which changed the tone of public life from the republican simplicity that Jefferson himself had cultivated during his own presidential administration into the egalitarian vulgarity of the Age of the Common Man. At least he had the good fortune to die before a dirty and disorderly mob actually invaded the White House at the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.
Some foreigners thought that the new nation was only going through a stage of youthful rambunctiousness and that with time it would grow up and behave better, as it developed class distinctions and standards of etiquette like those of Europe. Some Americans agreed. Families that had become rich began to fancy themselves potential aristocrats and to look across the Atlantic for models to imitate. The trend increased in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, as fortunes grew with the rise of industrial capitalism and so did the pretensions of their possessors.
“You got to be
awful rich to
dress as bad
as you do.”
Social aspirations of this kind collided with the social realities of America. In Europe, there was an aristocracy that set the tone for conduct at the upper levels. However wealthy, a coarse and awkward parvenu met with rejection. According to a traditional maxim, it took three generations to make a gentleman, since the son of newly rich parents usually could not avoid bearing some of the offensive marks of their low origin. Only the grandson, with proper upbringing and education, would be accepted as a legitimate member of the upper class. In the United States, there was no aristocracy to bar the way. A parvenu could make a rapid ascent into the world of fashionable society, where “wealth is the grand leveling principle,” in the words of a popular antebellum novelist.
The result of this quick mobility was vulgarity in high places. In the 1830s, a German immigrant described what passed for an “aristocracy” in the United States as “a few families who have been more successful in trade than the rest and are now cutting their friends and relations in order to be considered fashionable.” Since money excuses almost everything, American parvenus felt then—as they feel now—little need to improve their low habits and poor taste. “You got to be awful rich to dress as bad as you do,” remarked a workman to his employer, a highly successful novelist. When the wealthy chose to flaunt their superiority by going on a spending spree, “the result is often as appalling in its hideousness as it is startling in its costliness,” shuddered the author of the 1893 Baedeker guide to the United States.
The wives of nineteenth-century American capitalists, assisted by ample leisure as well as ample means, pursued snobbish distinctions with ferocious and untiring energy. But they were struggling against the tenor of the rest of society, including that of their husbands. A life spent in the rough and exhausting world of business did not dispose a person toward acquiring elegant tastes or learning stylish manners. Men “do not take polish readily,” warned a contemporary etiquette writer. The pretentious and affected woman, dragging her husband to some high-toned social event when he would rather be playing cards with his pals, became a popular comic stereotype.
In addition to the personal attempts of individuals to rise above the low norm of national manners, there were also efforts to elevate the norm collectively. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, idealistic Americans proclaimed that the general population could become refined, that everyone, however humble, was capable of acquiring gentility. Various measures for this purpose were tried by government bodies and private charities, but at a certain point they met resistance. Even Americans of humble background do not like other people telling them how to conduct their lives. They might be induced to adopt the most basic forms of courtesy and the most elementary habits of decency as the common practices of civilized humanity everywhere, but they were not going to go much further than that.
a country with
values and a
The project of elevating the masses, like the practice of imitating a foreign aristocracy, ran contrary to the fundamental character of the nation. America may be characterized as a country with middle-class values and a lower-class tone. The middle-class values (their nature and the process by which they came to achieve dominance among the general population) will be analyzed elsewhere.[ 1 ] My concern at this point is with the lower-class tone. Far from being a temporary or fortuitous condition, as some would like to think, it is a permanent and essential quality of American social life, being a natural manifestation of the egalitarian ethos.
Just as Americans dislike anything above the level of popular culture, they are also hostile to superior manners. Urbanity and finesse provoke, not admiration and imitation, but suspicion and aversion. A person with a veneer of cosmopolitan suavity is at a disadvantage, rather than an advantage, in the dealings of daily life. Elected officerholders are not the only ones who sense the need to present themselves as just “ordinary Joes” and “regular guys.” One model of polished diplomacy in the Federal State Department (Dean Acheson) felt obliged to declare with a straight face that he was “a simple country boy.” In such an environment, instead of striving to shine and appear brilliant, a clever person ingratiates himself with others by employing intentionally sloppy speech and making deliberate social fumbles.
The idea of grace being combined with power (the aristocratic suaviter in modo, fortiter in re) is incomprehensible to Americans. On those rare occasions when they happen to encounter it in dealing with foreigners, they become perplexed. As one of them remarked in bewilderment after a business meeting with some Japanese, “They’re so polite, and yet they’re so tough.” The civilized machismo of Latin American business executives is likewise beyond the imagination of Americans, who understand machismo only in its coarse, lower-class form.
In the United States, if one is strong, one may show it by acting tough. In some milieus, this is expected; not doing so would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Politicians occasionally strike crude and belligerent poses to please the electorate, and foreign affairs are often an arena for such posturing. When not in an idealistic mood, Americans tend to regard other countries as they might the dubious and threatening denizens of a bad street. They want to view their own nation as standing up to these characters and not being “pushed around.”
Most Americans are not vulgar themselves—at least not grossly vulgar—but they tolerate vulgarity and even approve of it at times. It does not provoke the instant and automatic condemnation that it would in Europe, where it is the stigma and the prerogative of the lower classes. In America, it is neither a taboo nor a rule, but an option. Many people enjoy it now and then, either directly or vicariously, as a refreshing break from the normal restraints of social life. Consequently, it may pop up in the most unusual places. The following are a couple of examples: (1) A man yells obscenities at another man, who yells them back. The exchange rises in a crescendo until both collapse in exhaustion. Is this some backstreet encounter? No, it was a meeting between a professor of classics and the president of a major university (John Silber). (2) “Congratulations! It was...a real street fight.... Nobody will ever call you a wimp again.” Is this a lower-class father applauding his son for duking it out with an antagonist? No, it was the head of the Chrysler Corporation (Lee Iacocca) addressing the next president of the United States (George Bush, Sr.).
Some people continue to hope that America will eventually acquire more sophisticated manners, as well as higher cultural tastes, and they have been continually disappointed. In the 1960s, they believed that their dreams were coming true under the leadership and example of President Kennedy. The paeans he inspired, especially posthumously, were wildly unrealistic. Aside from the fact that Kennedy himself was not the social and cultural paragon his idolaters made him out to be, the Sixties were brewing up a stew of low and gross behavior among the young that would lead the country in a direction far from anything elegant or elevated.
Ever since the spring of 1965, when a scruffy kid on the Berkeley campus lifted up a sign with a four-letter word on it, the accepted mode of public expression has descended further toward the bottom with each decade. In the Seventies, the liberties and license already claimed by the young were spreading to the rest of the population. By the Nineties, pundits were commenting on the foul language and vile conduct that had developed during the previous twenty years, with popular culture leading the way. In 2002, a writer at one of the nation’s most prestigious and sophisticated magazines was nonchalantly described as reveling in vulgarity, “like everyone else these days.”
People at the top have adapted to the trend. Ever intent on differentiating themselves from the rest of the middle class, those in the upper-middle used to imitate the luxuries of the old-money rich. Now they are selecting certain conspicuous practices of the lower classes, such as getting tattooed and riding motorcycles. Newly rich millionaires in Silicon Valley dress like beachcombers, while children of hereditary wealth dress like blacks from the slums.
This represents a remarkable change from tradition. In the past, as a society became richer and more powerful, it tended to become more aristocratic. The people at its higher levels acquired sophistication and refinement, and their culture and institutions exercised an influence on the rest of the population. In eighteenth-century England, for example, a person of low origins who wanted to rise in the world could attend the theater and imitate the upper-class diction and manners that were represented on stage. Anyone who goes to the theater in America today will receive lessons of a much different kind. On one occasion in 1997, President Clinton and his family viewed three of the season’s most popular Broadway productions, which exhibited a cloacal farrago of coarseness and obscenity. Clinton himself needed no tutelage in low-life behavior, but perhaps other affluent members of the audience were able to pick up some pointers.