The America That Was—The Bad and the Good

An understanding and appreciation of the underlying principles of a free society upon which the United States was originally established must be regained.

We live in a time when an understanding and an appreciation of what a free society can or should be like is being slowly lost. Or so it seems, often, to a friend of human liberty. Political interventionism and a revived interest in “democratic socialism” dominate public discourse in almost every corner of life.

The idea of the independent and self-responsible individual diminishes in the number of its supporters with every passing day.

Calls are constantly being made for government to do more. Remaining areas of personal life are to be invaded by increased government regulation, redistribution, control, command, and constraint. The idea of the independent and self-responsible individual diminishes in the number of its supporters, or so it appears, with every passing day.

Public-policy debates concern not whether something should be overseen and managed by government, but merely how far the interventionist welfare state should go, and who is going to pay for it.

Lost Memory of Freedom Past

The idea that there was a time in American history when many more matters of daily life were considered the domain of personal decision-making and voluntary collaborative community effort has mostly been erased from people’s memory. To a great extent that is because it is rarely if ever taught anymore, other than in the most negative of images.

Few people know or take an interest in that history of a freer America and the lives of those who lived during that earlier time. That makes it worthwhile, however briefly, to take a glimpse at that American past. To have a small flavor of it, sometimes the most interesting accounts are by Europeans who came to visit America in the early and middle
decades of the nineteenth century, and who wrote books about their impressions of this great experiment in a free society on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Everyday market competition was the lifeblood of success and a natural part of the processes of human improvement.

One of them was by a noted French economist and classical liberal, Michel Chevalier (1806–1879), who traveled around the United States in the mid-1830s, and on returning home wrote Society, Manners and Politics in the United States (1839). He described a land of energetic, free men and women who enthusiastically took their lives and destinies into their own hands, fearlessly facing the uncertainties to make their way and their fortunes on what seemed to be a boundless continent of opportunity.

They were not afraid of change or adapting to the personal and financial ups and downs of life. Indeed, they often viewed them as challenges to be grasped and turned to their advantage, rather than run away from them and then beg for government handouts and social safety nets. Everyday market competition was the lifeblood of success and a natural part of the processes of human improvement.

The Character and Quality of Earlier Americans

Perhaps it’s best to allow Michel Chevalier to explain a little bit of his impressions of the Americans of that time:

The American is a model of industry…. The manners and customs are altogether those of a working, busy society. At the age of fifteen years, a man is engaged in business; at twenty-one he is established, he has his farm, his workshop, his counting-room, or his office, in a word his employment, whatever it may be.

He now also takes a wife, and at twenty-two is the father of a family, and consequently has a powerful stimulus to excite him to industry. A man who has no profession, and, which is the same thing, who is not married, enjoys little consideration; he, who is an active and useful member of society, who contributes his share to augment the national wealth and increase the numbers of the population, he only is looked upon with respect and favor.

The American is educated with the idea that he will have some particular occupation, that he is to be a farmer, artisan, manufacturer, merchant, speculator, lawyer, physician, or minister, perhaps all in succession, and that, if he is active and intelligent, he will make his fortune.

He has no conception of living without a profession, even when his family is rich, for he sees nobody about him, not engaged in business. The man of leisure is a variety of the human species, of which the Yankee does not suspect the existence, and he knows that if rich today, his father may be ruined tomorrow.  Besides, the father himself is engaged in business, according to custom, and does not think of dispossessing himself of his fortune; if the son wishes to have one at present, let him make it himself!

… An American is always on the lookout lest any of his neighbours should get the start of him. If one hundred Americans were going to be shot, they would contend for the priority, so strong is their habit of competition.

American Individualism Seen as Essential to Liberty

Americans were, indeed, rugged individualists. In fact, the word “individualism” was used to convey an essential quality in the American character by that other famous Frenchman who traveled to the United States in the mid 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and who wrote of his journeys in his classic two-volume political study of a free society, Democracy in America (1835; 1840).

Tocqueville expressed concerns that the American individualism that he observed could make the individual less conscious and attentive to general society.

Tocqueville was not an uncritical devotee of American individualism, but he believed that its healthy aspects allowed the individual to see himself as a distinct person separate from the mass of humanity. The individual person was able to form his own freely chosen circle of partners and associations through family, friends, and commercial enterprise. Individualism was a bulwark against one of the most serious dangers in free societies with democratically elected governments: the tyranny of majorities, both politically and culturally.

Tocqueville expressed concerns that the American individualism that he observed could make the individual less conscious and attentive to the general society in which he lived. At the same time, he saw that the answer to the various social problems requiring the efforts and energies of combinations of people outside of family and business had been found among the Americans through the voluntary associations of civil society.

The American Spirit of Voluntary Association

In fact, Tocqueville considered that to be one of the most impressive aspects of American community life, to which he felt Europeans should be most attentive as an alternative to the presumption in the “old world” that all such “welfare” matters needed to be left to the State. In Tocqueville’s own words,

The political associations which exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, — religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools….

… I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it.

As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found each other out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example, and whose language is listened to….

Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America….

From local fire departments, to friendly societies for mutual assurance, to charitable organizations to assist those in a community who had fallen on hard and difficult times, as well as many other purposes, the spirit of individualism, Tocqueville explained, was to shoulder those responsibilities yourself as a free and responsible person in voluntary collaboration with your fellows in society.

Political Plunder in Earlier America

The idea of turning to government for such activities was clearly anathema to much that was in the American character. Yet government did exist in this earlier America, and it did more than merely secure people’s lives, liberty, and honestly acquired property. State and local governments subsidized privately built canals and ferries, gave protection to state-level banks that mismanaged their depositors’ funds, and gave out government contracts to special interests close to those in the legislatures.

The place was crawling with those wanting special favors, federal contracts, and trade protections from foreign competitors.

The British traveler Charles MacKay (1814–1889) is perhaps best known for his 1841 volume, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, but he journeyed around the United States in the second half of the 1850s, and then published Life and Liberty in America: Sketches of a Tour (1859). He spent time in Washington, D.C., and was invited to the White House to meet President James Buchanan.

The place was crawling with those wanting special favors, government jobs, federal contracts, and trade protections from foreign competitors. Others were just busybodies and gossips wanting to shake the president’s hand and tell him what the government should do according to their pet projects for making America great; some just wanted to poke around the White House to see how the president lived.

Glad-Handing for Power and Patronage

Charles Mackay shared his observations and impressions of his visit to the White House:

The White House … is a plain but elegant building, befitting the unpretending dignity of the popular magistrate of a country where government is minimized, and where the trappings and paraphernalia of state and office are unknown or uncongenial.

Here, the President — a man who possesses, during his term of office, a far greater amount of power and patronage than the sovereign of any state in Europe, except the Emperors of France, Russia, and Austria — transacts, without any unnecessary forms, and with no formality or ceremony at all, the business of his great and growing dominion.

Here he receives, at stated days and periods, ladies or gentlemen who choose to call upon him, either for business or pleasure, or from mere curiosity…. There is no man in the United States who has such a quantity of hand-shaking to get through as the President.

… Never was there a place in which office-hunters and place-seekers more assiduously congregate. The antechambers of the President are daily thronged with solicitants — with men who think they helped to make the President, and who are constantly of the opinion that the President should help to make them.

I thought, when presented to Mr. Buchanan, that he seemed relieved to find that I was an Englishman, and had nothing to ask him for — no little place for self, no cousin, or friend, or son for which to beg his all-powerful patronage.

Of course, when Chevalier, MacKay, and Tocqueville traveled around the United States, there was another plague across the land besides the growing special interest plunder, privilege, and favoritism that eventually grew into the twentieth century’s full-blown interventionist-welfare state.

The Perversity of American Slavery

That was slavery, and the national conflict and controversy already everywhere as to its legitimacy and the designs by Southerners to extend their “peculiar institution” into the Western territories and states. That, too, virtually every foreign visitor to America saw and commented upon.

Charles Mackay visited one of the auction sites in New Orleans, and was shocked when on orders of an auctioneer, female black slaves came up asking him to buy them.

I felt a sensation something similar to that of the first qualm of sea-sickness to be so addressed by my fellow creatures — a feeling of nausea, as if I were about to be ill. I entertained at that moment such a hatred of slavery that, had it been in my power to abolish it in one instant off the face of the earth by the mere expression of my will, slavery at that instant would have ceased to exist.

A Russian visitor to America in 1857, Aleksandr Borisovich Lakier (1825–1870), also saw slavery in action in New Orleans. He went to the levee to watch the unloading of the ships that had come down the Mississippi River or up from the Gulf of Mexico. “Most of the work is done by Negroes, who, under the watchful eye of the white overseer, carry bales of cotton and barrels of flour, sugar, and molasses from the steamboats to the shore,” Lakier explained. “The overseer, whip in hand, keeps account of the goods brought ashore and zealously drives the slaves to keep working without resting. If they tarry or daydream, the whip is always ready.”

Lakier, too, visited one of the slave auction sites in New Orleans. Thinking that Lakier was a potential buyer, the auctioneer took him around the premises.

If we stopped in front of a Negress, he turned her around, displayed her charms and spoke in my ear about her various recommendations. The poor woman, forgetting her natural shame, smiled and asked that I buy her.

The only thing that matched “the feeling of revulsion one brings to a place where Negroes are sold” Lakier said, was to read the advertisement flyers offering rewards for the capture and return of runaway slaves. There was included a description of the physical characteristics of the human being to be hunted down that was “precisely how we in our country [Russia] describe distinctive marks when we advertise for a missing dog.”

This blight on the politics, economics, culture, and soul of the American people was finally ended a few years after Mackay and Lakier witnessed this shame and insult to the universal principles of individual liberty on which the country was declared to be founded. Unfortunately, it came about only through a destructive and devastating civil war, the full effects from which the United States has still not completely recovered.

The American Ideal of Freedom Continued to Shine

But out of the shadow of this terrible crime against humanity and morality, America still continued as a hope and a reality of the possibility and potential for liberty and prosperity for tens of millions who came to the United States from many other parts of the world.

Here in America to be wealthy was neither a sin nor something to be embarrassed by or to feel guilty about.

Here people did not have bow low to those who claimed to be their aristocratic betters owing to military conquests from long ago. Here your past and its mistakes mattered much less than what you could demonstrate as your abilities to freely offer others what they may want in voluntary trade and exchange as the peaceful and productive means to your own betterment.

Here you could say what you wanted, write what you wanted, go where you wanted, work at what you wanted, associate freely with others as you wanted, without permission or approval of kings, princes, or their government ministers. Also, here in America to be wealthy was neither a sin nor something to be embarrassed by or to feel guilty about.

The Glory of America: Freedom of Industry and Enterprise 

Walter Raleigh Houghton (1845– 1929) was a professor of political science at Indiana University in the late nineteenth century. In 1886, he authored Kings of Fortune, or the Triumphs and Achievements of Noble, Self-Made Men, a series of biographies of people from many walks of life — scientists, inventors, philanthropists, lawyers, artists and
actors, and merchants and businessmen — who demonstrated excellence and enterprise in achieving recognition and stature in American society.

But what is noteworthy is that Houghton especially emphasized the significance and mark left by private enterprisers on American society. Their successes were indicative of what the country was all about. He said,

The chief glory of America is, that it is the country in which genius and industry find their speediest and surest reward. Fame and fortune are here open to all who are willing to work for them. Neither class distinctions nor social prejudices, neither differences of birth, religion, nor ideas, can prevent the man of true merit from winning the just reward of his labors in this favored land. We are emphatically a nation of self-made men, and it is to the labors of this worthy class that our marvelous national prosperity is due….

To an American, business is the quintessence of energy, the well-spring of ambition, and the highway to wealth, honor and fame. On it are based the push and the drive which are daily adding millions to the treasures of this nation, as well as giving us reputation and integrity among the peoples of the world.

What was wanted in any American for there to be a prosperous and ethical country were the qualities of honesty, integrity, industry, politeness, and courtesy. In another of his books, American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness (1883), Houghton tutored the young would-be businessmen on the personal qualities to cultivate in his interactions with others:

Form good habits and be polite to all; for politeness is the key to success. Be cheerful and avoid breaking an engagement. If you have to fail in carrying out an engagement you should make the fact known, stating your reasons. Do not deceive a customer. It will ruin your business. “Honesty is the best policy.”

Never loose your temper in discussing business matters. Meet notes and drafts promptly. To neglect this is to ruin your reputation. If you cannot pay, write at once to your creditor, stating plainly the reason why you cannot pay him, and say when you will be able. Pay bills when presented. Never allow a creditor to call a second time to collect a bill. Your credit will be injured if you do. When you collect a bill of a man, thank him.

Political Destruction of Private Virtue 

The private sector in America still retains many of these characteristics in daily life. To a great extent that is because the market has not been totally destroyed; voluntary association in this arena means that it still pays to act and see the personal benefit from so acting in a setting in which you can lose business that could have been yours if you do not behave in the way Houghton described.

That principle of individual freedom was—and still is—the only enduring hope for mankind.

What honesty, truthfulness, politeness, or sincerity exists today in American politics? Such qualities were, no doubt, wanting in the politics of that earlier time, in the nineteenth century about which foreign visitors wrote. But today the political arena in America really is nothing but a cesspool of connivance and corruption.

An understanding and appreciation of the underlying principles of a free society upon which the United States was originally established must be regained. Because even with its many contradictions, inconsistencies, and sometimes cruelties in its past, and into the present, the idea and ideal upon which it was founded, that principle of individual freedom was—and still is—the only enduring hope for mankind.

This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.

This article is republished with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.

More by Richard M. Ebeling

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