what americans are like -- 11/15/16

Today's selection -- from Worst. President. Ever. by Robert Strauss. In the America of the 1850s, to the astonishment of Europeans, change itself was a value and violence became its own entertainment:

"[In the 1850s], there was no country more fascinating to other nations than the United States. ... It seemed to Europeans visiting there had developed some human traits that were undeniably American. And Americanism, if there could be such a thing, had been born. 'Whether foreign visitors landed at New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, they were struck by the bustle, enterprise, and rough-and-ready cheerfulness of the people. Men talked of money, and had it,' wrote Allan Nevins in his seminal study of the period, Ordeal of the Union.

Almost everything seemed permissible, almost anything possible. It was frequently noted that the analyst shocked by some gross defect could find a compensating grace registered with equal energy. America offered an appalling total of violence, yet it had the most vigorous pacifist move­ment in the world. It was cursed by gross intemperance in the large cities and along its borders, yet great areas proscribed liquor with inex­orable severity. It seemed in some places the most licentious of lands, in others the most puritanically strait-laced. Americans were frank to confess themselves materialistic and addicted to money-hoarding, yet they were equally the most idealistic and philanthropic of peoples. The nation at times witnessed deplorable exhibitions of religious bigotry, but it prided itself with justice, upon the general tolerance of its laws and traditions. The whole gamut of human failings and attainments seemed expressed with more emphasis and color than in older nations.

"Americans loved themselves, loved the way they were, and looked to con­tinue to be that way. Walt Whitman's words in 'Song of Myself' were the song of every true American: 'Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself/ (I am large. I contain multitudes.)' There was nothing that stopped an American. If he did not make it in one neighborhood, he would find another. ...

Chatham Square, New York

"The vastness of the country and its youth, both as a nation and in its people, encouraged innovation and self-reliance. In Great Britain and Spain and France, the point seemed to be to preserve what was there. In America change itself was a value. Things were supposed to be bigger, better, different, wondrous -- and standing still was really flow­ing swiftly backward. Nevins noted that even in language, Americans were decidedly new and non-European. Everything was 'powerful' or 'magnificent' or 'mighty' and everything, good or bad, from a factory to slavery, became an 'institution.' American humor bespoke exaggeration or aggrandizement -- fish would be gargantuan; lakes, ocean-like; noses, like elephant trunks; drippy pumps, virtual Niagaras. There was nothing so big an American could not visualize.

"This collective aggrandizement also made an American fearless, and that influenced the violence that was unavoidable in the American mid-nineteenth-century character. ... Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and New Orleans had major riots during the 1850s. Duels and honor killings proliferated, even among the country's leaders. Aaron Burr's shooting of Alexander Hamilton gave rise to Andrew Jackson's duel kill­ing of Charles Dickinson. Senator William L. Yancey of Alabama killed his uncle and never served a day for it. Senator John T. Wigfall of Texas went to a friend's wedding, walked down the street afterward, and had an argument with the groom and killed him.

"This strain of violence seemed distinctly American to Europeans. First of all, there was that ever-expanding frontier. There was always someplace to escape to, and from. After a while violence became its own entertainment. ... Prize fighting thrived and duels were spectator sports. The myriad immigrant and even Native American tribes contrib­uted conflicts over territory and riches constantly. ...

"Almost every family had a deadly weapon of some sort. There was even one-upmanship in styles -- Jim Bowie's knives were the fashion for a time, then Colt's 45s, then sword canes, and even cutlasses. The vastness of the country led to the surety that law enforcement was, if not impossible, then much more difficult than in relatively crowded Europe. In the big cities, police forces finally became more organized, but not until the latter part of the 1850s. The Civil War itself got organized so quickly because so many individuals in the South had their own rifles and were ready to do battle without having to start manufacturing to arm up.

"At the same time, Europeans marveled at the idealism almost inherent in the American psyche. ... Americans were relentlessly optimistic, even in their materialism and their individualism. Yet despite that individualism, Americans were unusual -- especially in relation to Europeans -- in their belief in democ­racy. John Jacob Astor could come from nothing to amassing $25 million and Stephen Girard immigrated with empty pockets to become the richest man in the hemisphere. There were no kings or serfs, just possible success stories.

"The one peculiarity in all of this, though, was the tolerance of slavery, both in the North and South. With all the screeds about equality, liberty, and democracy, fully one-sixth of the nation's residents were enslaved."


Robert Strauss


Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents


Lyons Press an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield


Copyright 2016 by Robert Strauss


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