Vernon L. Parrington
Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920

“The child of two continents, America can be explained in its significant traits by neither alone” (iv).

Book One: The Colonial Mind

“New England,” says Parrington, was “a product of old-world custom and institutions, modified by new-world environment.” The key contribution of New England is the emergence of “two classes: yeomanry, gentry; and two ideals: Puritan and Yankee.”
This may be the site of problems, if the classes and ideals are taken as sets. Do people conclude from this that yeomen were Puritans and that the gentry was Yankee? This would locate radicalism exclusively in the cities.

Parrington says the English liberalism the colonists brought was “an attempt to create a new social system to replace the feudal, resulting in the doctrine of natural rights, democracy, and equalitarianism.” These changes, he says, were “the result of changing economics.” Puritanism, he says, was “primarily middle-class.” Separatism was a “left wing of Puritanism.” Calvinism was “reactionary...established in absolutism,” and focused on the “universality of moral law, determinism, reprobation [and a] denial of natural rights.” But the New England settlers were from a “middle period of the Puritan movement.” This will distinguish them, I suppose, from the Cromwellian regicides they left behind. The New Englanders, he says, were “aristocratic, yet with middle-class ambitions.” Their city on the hill was “A Utopian venture.”

The Massachusetts Bay theocracy was dominated by John Cotton, who represented “priestly stewardship,” and John Winthrop, who represented “magistracy ennobled by Puritanism.” Both opposed “the drift towards democracy,” Cotton on “scripturist” grounds, Winthrop on the “absolute authority of the law.” But the dominant presbyterianism (rule by the elders) was challenged by Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams, who established commonwealths in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The “Twilight of the Oligarchy” after 1660 was marked, Parrington says, by the “spread of provincialism” and the inability of later members of the “Mather Dynasty” to live up to their ancestor. The church became mired in “formalism” and “superstition,” exemplified by the “Salem outbreak.” Parrington calls Increase Mather an “arch conservative, bred by a conservative environment.” He was bitter, “intolerant...Unread in political theory--dictatorial.” Cotton Mather was an egoist and “Subject for a psychologist.” In contrast, Samuel Sewall was “the first representative of the new order.” Sewall was middle class, and if “Uncreative, conservative, [and] conventional,” at least he was “generous, kindly, the first embodiment of village friendliness.”

The colonists who came after 1720 were a “new stock,” according to Parrington. They were Scotch-Irish and German, and they had economic rather than religious motives for immigration. Although “undistinguished, [they] created the individualism that was a source of a new democratic psychology.” The frontier becomes relevant, both in economic terms as well as through Jonathan Edwards and the Awakening. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, is described as “A Democrat in an aristocratic world.” His
Modest Inquiry establishes “Labor [as] the measure of value,” and Parrington describes him as an agrarian, distrustful of industrialism.

The Revolution, for Parrington, corresponds with the “Awakening of the American Mind.” He distinguishes “three diverse interests” and attributes the rebellion to the combined “grievances of merchants, planters, yeomanry. The rise of the middle class and expulsion of (wealthy) loyalists helped form republicanism around Lockean ideals of natural rights, representation. Parrington gives much attention to the Tories, beginning with Thomas Hutchinson (royal governor of Massachusetts), and Whigs, focusing on John Dickinson of Philadelphia (once again, Virginia is left out!). He then turns to Samuel Adams, who he calls a “Master of political agitator and a practical politician.”

Between the Revolution and the Constitution, Parrington describes a period of “Agrarian defeat,” a “struggle between political realists and humanitarian liberals,” when agrarians retreated to “seventeenth-century republicanism” and an “English middle class” ethic of work and capitalism prevailed. With the levelers and followers of Rousseau safely out of the way, the political field was left to Alexander Hamilton, representing the “necessity of allying the wealthy with government,” and John Adams, who thought “rivalry, the class struggle, natural aristocracy” more credible than “French doctrines of equality and fraternity.”

But the French influence just wouldn’t end. Parrington calls “Tom” Paine an “internationalist,” but a “social inefficient.” cf.
Agrarian Justice. Jefferson, like Paine, believes in a “social compact, the res publica, the diminished state...decentralization [and] the excellence of an agrarian economy.” Does he confuse rhetoric with reality -- or is the reality irrelevant in this context?

Book Two: The Romantic Revolution in America

Thesis: The “humanitarian philosophy of the French Enlightenment” does battle with the “English philosophy of
laissez faire” for the soul of America, but “practical politics” intervenes in the form of “the explosive Jacksonian revolution.” The outcome was a Democratic rhetoric based on “political equalitarianism,” and a Whiggery devoted to “converting the democratic state into the servant of property interests.”

Parrington finally arrives in the South, which he says is dominated by two traditions: Virginia and South Carolina. Parrington traces the Virginian tradition to Jefferson, who he continues to identify with “Physiocratic agrarianism, natural rights” and now the “terminable nature of compact” which is the origin of nullification and the states rights argument; John Taylor, who he calls an “Agrarian Economist;” and John Marshall, an “arch conservative” who stood for “sovereignty of the federal state; sanctity of private property...sovereignty of judiciary; irrevocable nature of contract.”

Three streams of thought met in the South, Parrington says: Virginia humanitarianism, western individualism, Carolina imperialism. Carolina won. John C. Calhoun “destroyed Jeffersonianism for the South.” Parrington explores the “contrast between wage-slavery and black slavery,” suggesting “certain advantages of the latter” in the eyes of Southern apologists. He says the South cultivated “the Dream of a Greek Democracy.”

In the West, Parrington calls Henry Clay the “embodiment of Whiggery,” and then moves on to a comparison of the “two spokesmen of the West:” Andrew Jackson, who he calls an “Agrarian Liberal” and “our first great popular leader,” and Abraham Lincoln, a “Free-Soil Liberal” who embodied the war of “good will versus coercive sovereignty.” He compares romantic and the realistic depictions of the frontier, and the legends of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, whose legend Parrington calls a “Whig attempt to catch the coonskin vote.”

In the Middle-West, Parrington says both Philadelphia and New York suffered from “lack of intellectual backgrounds.” New York develops a literary tradition after it becomes the financial capital. He calls Washington Irving an “incipient liberal” who drifts toward the middle class. James Fenimore Cooper is a more complex character: “a barometer of his generation. Troubled by the transition from an aristocratic to a capitalistic order [he] lingered between worlds.” Horace Greeley, on the other hand, is a “Yankee Radical” whose thought evolves over his career toward idealism.

Parrington calls the “New England renaissance the last expression in America of eighteenth-century revolutionary thought.” Delayed (
and ultimately influenced?) by Federalists like Fisher Ames, who Parrington calls “a repository of aristocratic prejudice,” New England develops a Whig perspective that sees the “danger of agrarianism [and] particularism.” Daniel Webster shifts from laissez faire to protectionism “due to changing economics of his constituents.” The move to liberalism, when it finally comes, is “ethical rather than economic; German rather than French.”

“The growth of rationalism” leads to “Unitarianism--a recovery of the principle of primitive Congregationalism.” But where the “Puritan conscience” had been “individual rather than social,” Unitarianism awakens “a sense of social responsibility” leading to both reform and transcendentalism -- and ultimately abolitionism. Parrington describes William Lloyd Garrison as “a flinty character” and “a primitive Hebraist.” Harriet Beecher Stowe is “a daughter of Puritanism,” and a “sympathetic student of New England psychology” and Calvinism.

Parrington devotes two sections to transcendentalists and other Bostonians. Emerson’s transcendental individualism is summed up in
The American Scholar, Parrington says, and Thoreau’s Walden is the “extremest expression of eighteenth-century individualism.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is a “skeptic...neither transcendental nor Unitarian in philosophy, but curious concerning evil.” Oliver Wendell Holmes is a “rationalist...a Brahmin rebel defending free thought.”

Book Three: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America

Thesis: “Changing patterns of thought: from the frontier came the doctrine of preemption, exploitation, progress; from the impact of science came the dissipation of the Enlightenment and a spirit of realism; from European proletarian philosophies came a new social theory.”

This book was unfinished, but it looks like the most interesting of the three. So I’m going to order a copy, and read it more closely.

Culture vs. Society in the Gilded Age

Alan Trachtenberg
The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age

About equal parts polemic and accessible undergraduate summary of the Gilded Age. Trachtenberg begins with Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s observation that “We have no word to express government by monied corporations.” (3) His claim is that the “deepest changes” and the “deepest resistances” to “these decades of swift and thorough industrialization and urbanization lay at the level of culture, difficult for contemporaries to recognize, and baffling for historians.” (7) The book is organized thematically, as a “dialectic between mind and world, culture and society.” (8) Like other “cultural” books on my reading list (
The Country and the City, Virgin Land, The Machine in the Garden), Trachtenberg’s account left me wondering exactly who he was talking about. Along the way he mentions a wide variety of titles that are probably some of the key windows into the contemporary culture. I found myself wanting to know just how popular they were. Who read these books, and what other books were they reading at the same time (or instead of these)?

Texts to check out:

Ragged Dick, 1867
Emerson, “
The American Scholar,” 1867
Roughing It, 1871
The Mission of the North American People, 1873
Progress and Poverty, 1883
American Nervousness, 1884
Looking Backward, 1888
The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century, 1899
The Winning of the West, 1889
Billy Budd, 1891
Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier” 1893
Wyckoff, The Workers: An Experiment in Reality: The West, 1899
The Virginian, 1902
Principles of Scientific Management, 1911

So I thought it might be a good idea at some point to find a list of American bestsellers, by year, for the entire nineteenth century -- if such a thing exists. I was also reminded -- I’m not completely sure why -- to look again at the Arts and Crafts movement, as a cultural response to this modernity, back towards an older (or forward towards a new) simpler agrarianism. Should probably look at Lovett again sometime soon.

Alcoholic America?

The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition
W. J. Rorabaugh


Rorabaugh writes “the United States [between 1790-1830] underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress. (xi) America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men (after a few initial remarks, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about gender differences in consumption) desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be...). Their frustration and guilt led them to alcoholism, and maybe other forms of social action. Rorabaugh claims there is “little psychological difference between a drunkard’s hallucinations and an Anti-Mason’s hysteria.” (173) “America,” Rorabough concludes, “was left as a culture dominated by an ambivalence that could be transcended only through an anti-intellectual faith.” (219) Or, as his data shows, by drunkenness. Maybe the point he missed is that those two options are somehow equivalent.

Rorabaugh introduces clergymen and temperance moralists in the first paragraph of the book; but in a study that purports to deal with hidden psychological causes, he never really addresses
their motivations. (5) The data, especially on changing rates of per capita consumption, is sometimes startling. Americans now drink more than 18 gallons of beer per capita! (9) I wonder who is drinking mine? Similarly, I wonder about the distribution and change over time of early drinking patterns. Rorabaugh says that by the 1820s “half the adult males...were drinking two-thirds of all the distilled spirits.” (11) At least, I think that’s what he said -- the endnotes are completely impossible to follow. A reviewer actually attacked the Oxford Press for the illegibility of the references in this book. The problem is, they exacerbate the overall lack of specificity in the text, by making it impossible to nail down times and places where critical observations were made, or check the sources who made them. Another reviewer complained of the overgeneralized, almost caricature way that Rorabaugh talked about his subjects. Americans ate too quickly, and drank too much, because their food was horrible. (118) Farm owners were not heavy drinkers, but “is it any wonder that farm hands turned to strong drink?” (128)

In spite of these flaws, Rorabaugh provides some interesting data, and a perspective that shines light on the nineteenth century from an interesting angle. “Between 1790 and 1810,” he observes, Americans managed “to bring into production almost as many acres as had been planted in the preceding two centuries...In 1790, only one hundred thousand of four million Americans resided in the West; by 1810 one million of seven million did.” (126) This is dramatic change, and it seems reasonable to suspect that it created social stresses that may have driven some increased alcohol consumption. And then there’s the supply side. Rorabaugh provides a really good synopsis of early American distilling, especially “across the Appalachians” where corn was abundant, but too bulky to bring to market. His depiction of the west as a cash-poor land of unprecedented farm surpluses helps explain the growth of western distilling in the decades before canals and railroads. (80 ff.) “From 1802 through 1815,” he says, “the federal government issued more than 100 patents for distilling devices...more than 5 percent of all patents granted.” (73) By 1810, distilling was concentrated in Kentucky, Ohio, western PA, and upstate NY, and these four areas produced more than half of the nation’s grain and fruit spirits. (77) Western New York production peaked in 1828, and continued even while flour shipments ramped up. “By 1840 distilleries in southwest Ohio, upstate New York, and...Pennsylvania distilled more than half of the nation’s grain spirits.” (85) New York state’s distilleries peaked in 1825 at 1,129, which produced an estimated 18 million gallons. By 1840, the industry seems to have consolidated, with 212 distilleries producing 12 million gallons. In 1850, 93 distilleries made 11.7 million gallons, and in 1860, 77 distilleries made 26.2 million gallons. (chart, 87)

This data is really useful to me. Rorabaugh’s analysis is not as helpful for my purposes, but still instructive. Although his chart shows a steadily increasing value of the product of New York distilleries, Rorabaugh’s narrative describes a “whiskey glut” that he says “exemplified the inability of Americans who clung to traditional agrarian values to promote change.” The “surplus grain had the potential to become either food for industrial workers or, if sold in the market, the means of acquiring money that could be used as capital to build factories” (88). But western farmers lacked our 20:20 hindsight. Rorabaugh’s response to their choice to make whiskey rather than become industrialists illustrates a problem faced by contemporary historians looking at the rural past. This anachronistic misunderstanding of rural people became extreme during the progressive era -- which I’ll be getting to in the next couple of months.