The Post-Revolutionary Generation
I wanted to figure out what it meant to inherit a revolution. I wasn’t interested in the government that was formed after the Revolution—not in state-building—but rather in nation-building, in the creation of meaning. Because I knew that the colonies had not been united before the Revolution, and I was interested in how this blending and integration of ideas and sympathies and sentiments took place.
So I decided to look at the cohort of Americans born between 1776 and 1800—because these would have been the men and women—black and white, immigrant and native-born. These would have been the people who had no contact with the colonial era. They had never been subjects of George III, so they didn’t have any sense of that—any immediate sense of that feeling.
In her guide to classic French cooking, Julia Child dissuades her readers from using a pastry cutter in making those famous doughs and quiches that she has elaborate recipes for. And she says: It’s necessary to get your hands in the dough. *Il faut maitre les mains a la pain. Well, I think that’s very good advice for historians: It’s important to get your hands into the experience of people. And this is what I wanted to do in finding out about inheriting a revolution—I wanted to get my hands into their lives.
And so what I decided was to look at those people who had done something in public life: started a business; run for office; begun a club; perhaps started a newspaper; invented something useful; or wrote for publication—even if they only wrote an autobiography. And, in fact, about 350 people of this cohort did write autobiographies, and I drew on those. But I also followed the careers of about 2 to 3,000 people. I was not selective in any way. Anyone that I discovered who was in this cohort, I took down information about them.
My research was like a vacuum cleaner. As I said, I took everything down, and I used the latest technology. When I found a name, I got a 4-by-6 card. I filled it out. [Laughter] And then I filed them alphabetically in empty shoeboxes. And I still have those empty shoeboxes.
Now, there were four unexpected and interactive developments that shaped the coming of age of this generation. One of them was the radicalizing of politics; the other was the revitalization of religion—American Protestant Christianity; a third was the opening up of a whole new array of opportunities; and the fourth was the abolition of slavery in the northern states. I want to spend just another minute on these, because it’s important, to understand this generation, to realize how unexpected these were.
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, their idea of leadership was that it would be, really, a continuation of colonial leadership—in which there would be the uncontested leaders who would distinguish themselves, really, from the very beginning of their entering into public life. They didn’t expect political parties. And the political parties erupted suddenly because of, basically, a group of people—Thomas Jefferson and others—feeling deeply threatened by the kind of government that George Washington was pursuing as the first president.
So the radicalizing of politics that I’m talking about is what we would take for granted—normal political participation; party disputes. But there was a vituperation, and an animosity, and an anger that came about in the 1790s, just because political parties, or factions, were unexpected. The revitalization of religion had to do with a series of revivals that begin in the late 1790s, and then continue for about twenty years. And they’re local affairs. A particular congregation or a minister manages to create a spark of religious fervor. But there are so many of them, and they have such a transforming effect on American Protestant Christianity, they’ve come down to us as the Second Great Awakening. This, as you’ll see in my story, has a tremendous impact on this generation, because their parents and grandparents had not been profoundly religious. Individuals had, but religion was not a vital part of public life.
As far as the occupations are concerned—this new array of jobs and economic ventures that Americans could entertain, and enter into after the Revolution—this is largely because of developments elsewhere. Mainly Great Britain, in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But as an independent nation, America participated in a very different way—in this Atlantic economy that it was a part of. But there is this acceleration of economic transactions—this widening and intensifying of market relations—and it meant that there were lots of things that people could earn a living doing, that they hadn’t been able to do before.
And then, finally, I mention the abolition of slavery. This was a quite unexpected development. It came about because of the obvious contradiction of having an institution treating human beings as chattel, as property, at the same time that you had a group of colonies declaring their independence under the banner of human equality and respect for natural rights. This contradiction was glaring from the very beginning. It’s there in the colonial resistance movement. The British make sure that the Americans are aware of it. Samuel Johnson, who was a hired pen for the British government, said, in one of his pamphlets: Why is it we hear the greatest yelps for freedom among the drivers of slaves?
And northern states do, in fact, act upon it. Starting in 1780, the individual northern states abolished slavery. It’s the first legislative abolition of slavery in the history of the human race. Pennsylvania it started with, and it ended with New Jersey a few years after the beginning of the nineteenth century.
All of these developments were unexpected. They aren’t a part of the planning of the Revolution. But it’s in the nature of revolutions to lead to unexpected developments, because a revolution is just that. It is a cutting away of the ties that bind people to customs and traditions and normal ways of living.
But all of these developments—As I said, they’re interactive, but they make life more fractured and spontaneous—and they weaken the guards of restraint and discretion that police the borders between the public and the private.
Few in the nation escaped their influence. As I said, revolutions have unintended consequences. They also affect people differently. The principal beneficiaries of the Revolution were white men. But African Americans benefitted from the Revolution, in part because of the abolition of slavery in the North—but also because of the Revolution itself. Every state, except South Carolina, armed blacks in the Revolutionary fight itself, and veterans of the Revolution got their freedom. A lot of manumissions in the South. There were, as I said, a gradual emancipation in the North. Self-liberation was made easier for slaves, because of the fact that the North now offered a free area.
All of these factors worked together to produce America’s first free black population. This was actually the fastest-growing segment of the population for about twenty years. And free blacks were able to give the lie to southern planters, who emphasized their diminished capacity. Rather, they showed incredible capacity to form churches, voluntary associations, start businesses—mostly in the cities of the upper South and in the North.
As far as women, they were excluded as citizens, but they did find ways to participate in the effervescing public life after the Revolution. And in their participation they give the public new material about what women can do and want to do. And this has an impact on people’s thinking.
Not everybody born after the Revolution took place in this dynamic life that I’m talking about, in which people are responding to new opportunities and shaping a nation. Some people wanted nothing more than to replicate their parents’ way of life. Other people lacked even the minimal resources that it would have taken to move out of their homes. And a good many people still lived under the direction of the male head of the household, who was armed, by law and custom, with enormous powers over his dependents.
So I don’t want to leave the impression that everyone was taking place in these activities that I’m talking about. But I do want to tell you about seven people whose lives I followed—who, in their lives, I think, give us a sense of the major themes of inheriting a revolution. They give us a sense of how a group of people—a representative group of people—responded.
My first cameo, as it were, is Ichabod Washburn. He was born in Kingston, Massachusetts, in 1798. His seafaring father died of yellow fever, leaving his mother with infant twins and a three-year-old child. This was a not-at-all-uncommon experience. Mortality, which had tapered off in the eighteenth century, rises again in the nineteenth century, with a number of leading killers—yellow fever being one of them.
At nine years old Ichabod Washburn was put out as an apprentice to relieve his mother of some of the burden of taking care of him. And in, you know, classic fashion—sort of from our fairy tales—he took all of his clothes. And he wadded them up in a bundle, and he put them on a stick, and walked five miles to a job in Duxbury—where he was going to be apprenticed to a harness maker.
He sees a windmill for the first time—and this was about the most complicated machine in America in the first decade of the nineteenth century—and he’s jabbering excitedly about this. And the man who’s accompanying him tells him to stop asking so many questions.
By the time he is 14, Washburn is employed in a cotton factory—in which he’s working with an Englishman at a power loom, in which the cogs are made with wood. His guardian uncle prevents his going to Rhode Island to work in the *Slater mills. Washburn had an early mechanical bent, and he was dying to get his hands on some new machinery. But his uncle told him that this country soon would be so full of factories that there would be no need for anymore machinery. [Laughter] And so Washburn doesn’t get to participate in that.
We learn all these facts about Washburn in his autobiography, which was published after his death, in 1868. And in it he is hailed as the founder and owner of Washburn and *Moen Wire Manufacturer in Worcester. It’s said to be the largest establishment of its kind, with 11 acres under one roof. It sounds very large.
The accelerating pace of international trade and of the textile manufacturing created a bonanza of opportunities for poor rural lads like Ichabod Washburn. In the nascent textile industry, and the machine-making industry, those boys—and they were almost boys—who had a talent for putting things together could find an entry into a range of new operations. And these are particularly common in New England, because there were so many rivers that could be dammed and sluices built—because waterpower was the original power that was used.
One of the things that I found very interesting is that old colonial wealth—With a couple of major exceptions, old colonial wealth did not go into these new industries. For the most part, the old money, the people with money, were conservative. They continued into trade, because they had been in overseas trade before. When the new insurance business begins, they go into that. But where they kept their money—if they kept their money—was in real estate. Because the cities—like New York, Boston, Philadelphia—were doubling about every ten years, so there was a tremendous wealth to be gained in holding onto real estate.
But what this meant—the indifference of wealthy people in going into these new industrial opportunities—and also the fact that it’s in the rural area that there is the power for them—is that ordinary boys, like Ichabod Washburn, were able to take advantage of them. America had no savings—literally no savings. They had borrowed to fight the Revolution. And, yet, you find kind of a pooling of—maybe it’s a pooling of hope. So that I found a shoemaker who got all of his money for making his shoes from the man who supplied him the leather. So this is an era of sweat equity and sort of cooperative credit extension. And this has an important impact in the character of kind of a sprawling middle class that is forming.
Washburn was not typical in his success, but he was representative. And another way that he was representative of his generation was his personal commitment to temperance. Jim mentioned the figure of alcohol consumption, which was really surprising to me. And, yet, what I realized is that America was a traditional society before the Revolution, and traditional societies drank a lot.
Drinking was a part of every celebration. Drinking was also, in many cases, seen as more healthful than the water; drinking was a part of most medicines. And weddings were celebrated with drinkings, harvest festivals, christenings—even ordinations were sites of drinking. And I’d always thought of the temperance movement as being sort of a top-down affair, with people like Lyman Beecher getting up there and drumming up support for going on the wagon. But what I discovered in looking at personal lives is how many individuals decided not to drink themselves. And so these were sort of the foot soldiers of the temperance movement. They do succeed in cutting alcoholic consumption about in half in one decade.
Well, Washburn gets married, and he wants to build a house, and he wants to build a house without buying any liquor for the workmen. He asks his carpenter if this is possible. His carpenter says: Absolutely not. It’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard. [Laughter] The men in his factory jeered at him—absolutely mock him—for the idea—according to him—the idea that he could possibly do what has never been done in this town before: raise a house without rum. But he succeeds in doing it. He found men willing, he says, to cooperate and to accept his pay and a bill of fare—namely, lemonade, crackers, and cheese with small beer.
Another way that Washburn is typical is in his devotion. He was a Congregationalist. And when he’s an apprentice he works over hours—he makes irons, waffle irons. He works over hours and sells these. And the first thing he does with his money is rent a pew in the Congregational church. The second thing that he does is to buy the memoirs of Harriet Atwood *Newell. And he said that he got more benefit from Newell’s memoirs than anything else except the Bible. This, of course, made me very curious to read Harriet Newell’s memoirs, which I thereupon did.
She was celebrated as a Christian heroine, and her piety was extolled. And the memoir—it’s a fairly short one—was something of a best seller. It was composed of her diary, that she started keeping when she was twelve years old, and then letters that she later wrote to her mother. The diary begins when there has been a revival that has come to her school, Radford Academy, and it has left Harriet in a state of acute anxiety about the state of her soul. In these first years—12, 13, 14, 15—you would think she was the most despicable person alive. She talks about the degradation that she feels; the emptiness; her fear that she can never do anything for God—that she will always be this ignominious representative of a failed Christian.
When she’s seventeen there begins to appear in her diary 23-year-old Samuel Newell. This is Harriet Atwood’s diary. And we learn that he is an engaged Christian who expects to spend his life in preaching a savior to the benighted pagans. And soon the references to his sermons begin tapering off, and we hear more about regular visits. And you get the idea that there’s a romance that is, you know, blooming here. Then there’s an oblique comment in her diary: He wishes not to influence me. He would not if he could.
Well, marrying Samuel Newell was a fateful step for her, because the newly formed American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries has just come up with the money to send Newell—and a bride, if he gets a bride—and another young couple to India. So she must decide if she is willing to leave everything that is familiar to her and to travel to India. It’s American enterprise, twenty years earlier, that even makes this possible. But after the Revolution, when American shippers were free to go anyplace in the world, they did start sailing from Salem to India. The man who does this first, *Elias Hackett Darby, becomes America’s first millionaire. So that to send these missionaries there, it’s possible to book a passage on a commercial brig that is regularly going to Calcutta—and that’s exactly what the ABCFM does.
But people are very aware that this is a rather special occasion—to have two young couples, all four of them under twenty-five, departing for Calcutta—and so there is a great gathering on a gloomy February morning in Salem, Massachusetts, when they’re to set sail. And the minister of the local church gives a special sermon on the occasion of two young ladies being about to embark as the wives of missionaries to India.
Now, the point that Alan makes about these women is that they are going to have to do much of the work of their husbands, because their husbands are not going to be able to reach the sequestered wives of Hindus and Mohammedans. And he talks about how these women have been taught they are an inferior race. And it’s going to be up to Harriet Newell, and her companion, to get the gospel message in to these women—and to teach them that they are not an inferior creatures, but stand on a par with men.
For events after her departure, the memoir of Harriet Newell draws upon the weekly letters that she wrote home to her mother. And in them she exults with joy of having a most affectionate partner. So you get the idea that this is a happy marriage. The dreary speculations about damnation are now replaced with the bubbling commentary about Calcutta, which they reach in June: The natives here are as thick as bees. They keep a continual chattering, she says.
No English lady is here seen walking on the streets. Never has she enjoyed such health. Their mission house in *Sarampour is spacious. The garden was larger and more elegant than anything in America. The mangos and guavas are an exotic delight. And then what I love is this very pious young woman is just like every other tourist when she writes home: You will hardly credit it when I tell you that it is fully as expensive living here as it is in America. [Laughter] Every tourist observation.
But, alas, the British East India Company uses the outbreak of the War of 1812 to expel these American missionaries. The Newells, with Harriet now pregnant, decide to go to another mission field—to go to the Isle of France, which is Mauritius, where there’s also American trade—and so they set sail for that.
And it’s a despairing letter from Samuel Newell to his mother-in-law that concludes the memoir. And he cries out against a God who has sent them sickness and death instead of success in preaching the gospel. And first he says that: God takes away the dearest little babe which he gave us—the child of our prayers and hopes. It was born four days outside of the Ile—before they land. And then he sort of stints the news. And finally he breaks the news that Harriet, seven weeks later, died of consumption—which she probably took with her. That it had killed her. And, of course, this is why her memoir is so important in the genre of the martyred Christian.
Behind the Newells’ departure for Calcutta lay the vaulting spiritual ambition of another New England clergyman, Samuel Mills. And Mills is a few years older than the Nelsons and the other couple—the Judsons. And he’s been swept up in a revival that hit Litchfield County, Connecticut. He goes to Williams College. And there, one afternoon, picnicking with several other of his friends on the *Housic River, these students dream up a project for their generation. And this great project is going to be carrying the gospel light to the darkest parts of the globe.
And to this end the young men decide that they should get out of Williams and go to a different college, so that they can collect as many clergymen as possible. And so, in fact, Mills does go to Yale, and graduates from Yale. And he goes on to Andover Theological Seminary, where their plans really reach fruition. Now, Andover is a seminary that has just been founded, and it’s been founded for those evangelical Protestants, descendants of the Puritans, who have been expelled from half the pulpits in New England by the Unitarians. Who, to add insult to injury, have also taken over Harvard University. So Andover very much represents the other side of Christianity—the evangelical, fervent, experiential Christianity.
These young seminarians are able to convince their elders that they should sent out missionaries, and they lead to the founding of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries. In addition to sending the Newells and others to India, they have missions to Ceylon, to the Hawaiian Islands, as well as a number of missions in the West among Native Americans—the Choctaws, Osage, Senecas, Tuscaroras.
Mills, himself, after the boat has departed, teams up with a Dutch Reform minister and decides to explore the West of the United States. And so the two of them trek through Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana territory. And there they find inhabitants destitute of all religion. Well, they aren’t so much destitute of religion as they are destitute of churches. Because when the churches— The Revolution was terribly destructive of churches and churches *staten. And then the churches are disestablished, most of them—so there’s no support to send ministers to the West.
Finally, the Methodists and the Baptists discover a way of sending circuit riders to the West. But it is true that in the West there has been very little in the way of formal religious instruction—for the children or for the grown-ups. As Mills wrote: There are American families in this part of the world who never saw a Bible nor heard of Jesus Christ. It is a fact that ought not to be forgotten, that so lately as March, 1815, a Bible in any language could not be found for sale or to be given away in New Orleans. The whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death. [Laughter]
Well, Mills is not one to let a situation like this go on unattended, and so he decides that his next effort is going to be to get enough Bibles for everybody in the world. That’s what the world needs. He’s a man much given to figures. He loves to get out a piece of paper and write things down, and he decides that it will require a half a million Bibles to do this. I want you to realize that he calculated it would take 60,000 alone for New York City. [Laughter] And he recognizes it’s going to have to be an ecumenical movement. And so he gathers together Episcopalians, and Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, and Baptists and Methodists, and they form the American Bible Society—which was incredibly successful in printing and distributing free Bibles, along with a lot of other Sunday school tracts and the like.
The final resting place for Mills foreshortened reform career was in anti-slavery. The revolt of slaves in French San Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century to Mills is a providential sign. It is a sign that God’s work for freedom, which he devoutly believes in, was meant to include Africans, as well. And when, finally, there’s a revolt that leads to the formation of Haiti, Mills is ready to join this movement. And he becomes deeply interested in the American Colonization Society—which, in its early days, had kind of a reform bent.
It started with the idea of repatriating free blacks in West Africa. First in the British colony of Sierra Leone, and, finally, in Liberia. And Mills is certainly one of the finest persons. Later it becomes kind of a dubious proposition. But Mills throws himself into this. Collects money for school material for schools in these West African colonies. And he goes to Liberia to see on the ground how things are going. And then, as his biographer says, he found a watery grave on the way home. He dies at sea. And his memorial, like that of Newell’s, becomes an inspirational piece.
One of the fascinating things about this generation is how important reading was. Literacy, male literacy—certainly in the North—reaches about 90 percent with this generation. The southern lags, but it’s still increasing—and female literacy is probably 60, 70 percent. And it’s like our having 100 channels, and having to fill them up all day long. This ability to read leads to this voracious appetite for printed material, and so all kinds of people are dragooned into writing occasional pieces. There’s an exponential factor of four in the number of newspapers. Newspapers go from 100 in 1790 to 260 in 1800, and it just doubles about every ten years.
It has a pervasive effect, because it makes all kinds of ordinary experiences become a part of a reading experience. People write about their experiences. The memoirs of Newell and Mills are a beautiful example. They are models. They inspire people to the idea that you can do these things, because you can read about them. Before that, it was a very small upper class that did that much reading, and books were confined to a small group. It’s cheap printing that is making a difference.
Now, not all New Englanders had the evangelical spirit of the Newells and the Millses, but a lot of New Englanders travel. Mainly boys, but some girls. One of the most common things for young men to do, and a way of getting out of rural drudgery—which seems to have been everybody’s ambition. We’re very nostalgic about the farm, but these people are not nostalgic about the farm. They are dying to get away from this unending circle of dreaded tasks. And one of the things young men could do was to become peddlers. To buy goods in the North—needles, threads, knives, scissors, notions, we call ’em notions of all sorts—and take them South.
Bronson Alcott, the transcendentalist, manages, by being a book-subscription agent, to get enough money to outfit himself and his cousin to go South and sell these goods. This is usually something that most people did for three or four or five years. It was a way of getting out of the farm, and getting away from the family. And in Bronson’s case—in a lot of young men’s case—they send back money to their parents, until they’re twenty-one. They sort of tacitly accept that they owe their parents their labor until they’re twenty-one.
I mention Bronson Alcott, because one of the fascinating things that I learned from him is that there were very few taverns—very few places that any traveler could put up for the night—and so people expected any kind of a house that they found—they expected to get hospitality there. And, of course, these peddlers would go to the biggest house they could find, thinking that the hospitality would be a lot better. But they said they never knew, before they were shown their bed, whether they were going to be put in the slaves’ quarters or the master’s house.
And the other thing I thought was interesting, that Alcott talks about, is that he read John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and Second Treatise of Government in a southern library. This literature was not in New England. Most libraries were libraries full of theological tracts of sermons. He was first exposed to literature. So, again, there’s a lot goes on—a lot of fertilization is going on in these rambles.
They, certainly, to their seniors, seemed astounding—that these young people could be going everywhere and doing these things. And supporting themselves. That was the most important thing—they had to be able to support themselves.
David Walker was born in the South, and he’s two years younger than Samuel Mills, and he made his move from South to North. Walker is unusual in having been born free. He was the son of a North Carolina slave father and a free mother, and children followed the status of their mothers under slave law.
Like so many of these young people, Walker, himself, wanted to see the rest of society. He traveled throughout the South. And then he went North under the promise of being accepted in the North, because he knew about the abolition of slavery in the North. He sets himself up as a secondhand clothes dealer in Boston. He is heartily disappointed to discover almost as much racial hostility in the North as existed in the South. But he is able to vote; he is able to participate in a newspaper venture. He’s the salesman for Samuel Cornish’s New York paper, the Freedom Journal, which is the first black newspaper, and he is able to write himself. And what he writes is something that has come down to us as Walker’s Appeal. And it’s a stirring message that was addressed strictly to African Americans.
He’s totally contemptuous of the racial attitudes of most white Americans. Walker begins his appeal by describing how he had been “troubling the pages of histories, to find out what our fathers have done to white Christians of America to merit such punishment.” Now, Walker’s Appeal is bold in approach, and it’s brilliant in execution, and it announces a new voice in American literature—that of the angry, articulate African American.
Black seamen took Walker’s Appeal South, and distributed it surreptitiously wherever they could. And the official Southern response to this appeal was, you know: The idea! The audacity of this man doing this was swift and brutal. Walker was personally denounced, a price was put upon his head, and the legislatures of Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia passed laws making it a crime to teach slaves to read and write.
It’s an interesting thing about the— There is no greater contradiction than the situation of African Americans—both those enslaved and, to a lesser extent, the free blacks that I talked about—the contradiction between their way of life and their treatment and the ideals, the stated ideals of this country. And it would be a real hypocrisy— The only thing that saves it from being hypocrisy is that this was an issue that was agitated all the time. It was talked about; it was wrestled with—it was not accepted. And there was very much an air of urgency among people of this generation. For African Americans, this abolition of slavery shows that the institution can be destroyed. People can get up in a legislative assembly and pass laws that make it no longer possible to hold human beings as property.
Well, the question for this generation was whether or not northern white men and women were going to abide by their principles and protect the life, the liberty, the property, the ambitions of African Americans, or whether they were going to be pulled by the siren song of white supremacy that was coming out of the South. So Walker’s Appeal reflects this urgency, and reflects the sense that this is still hanging in the balance. And that continues throughout the lifetime of this generation.
Julia *Tebbis—another one of my representative figures—is also a southerner. She was born of a Tennessee frontier family, but her father is a German. Julia Hieronymus Tebbis is her name. And her father has very high standards of education for his daughters and his son. And so he takes his family from frontier Tennessee and brings them back to Washington, DC, in 1813. And Tebbis is a high school girl. She goes to an academy, and she’s just thrilled with Washington, DC. She talks about the great celebration of the battle of *Thames in the War of 1812. She describes the ball that she went to when Monroe was inaugurated as president. She’s a bit of a prig—but, nonetheless, she’s only about seventeen at the time.
She said that: the ostentatious display of wealth and splendor was little in accordance with the republican simplicity which should constitute the dignity of a nation so utterly rejecting high-sounding titles and Oriental magnificence. I cannot believe that Washington in 1816 was quite as glamorous as she describes. She said: The barbaric splendor of gold and jewels, glittering and dazzling through this whole exhibition, made us almost imagine that we had been rubbing Aladdin’s lamp.
But like so many of the people in this generation, her father dies; she has to quit school; and, indeed, she has to find some way to earn her living. She’s at the threshold of womanhood, she tells us in her autobiography: My mirror plainly told me that, though calmly and symmetrical, I was not to depend upon my face for my fortune. Or, in other words, I could never expect to be a belle on account of my beauty. I decided, therefore, that my attractions must be of the mind. And so, of course, she becomes a teacher.
She moves to a small town in Virginia. Very soon thereafter her brother dies, so she is, indeed, the head of her household—her mother. And she brings her sister there, and finds some classes—drawing and teaching dancing—for her sister.
I want to say, one of the things that’s interesting—Those of you who study this period know that a great deal is made about the separate spheres of men and women, and how women were immured in a domestic life—and exaggerated in their exclusion from the public sphere. This is certainly true—and, rhetorically, we can find lots of evidence of it—but there was no safety net in the early decades of the nineteenth century. And if a woman lost her father or her husband, she had to work—she had to support herself. Most middle-class women found jobs as teachers—some of them founded schools. But there is a practical engagement of the exigencies of living that works at odds with this idea of separate spheres between men and women.
In the case of Julia Tebbis—you know, she’s pretty unhappy about having to give up—as she said: No more pleasant walks and drives along the banks of the lovely Potomac. A name that even now touches the tenderest chord in my heart. And she’s probably the last person who could say that. I soon learned that the life of a faithful teacher must be one of toil and unremitting care. I read that for all the teachers out there. [Laughter] All my fair visions of romance faded into the stern reality of my responsibility for others.
She becomes a Methodist. She gets caught up in a revival, and she meets a Methodist circuit rider. And falls in love with him—or, at least, she agrees to marry him—and the two leave Virginia and go to Kentucky, where his father lives. Now, Methodist circuit riders got no pay—they just lived off the land, as it were. They might be farmers and farm, and then go on circuit when there was a lull in the agricultural tasks.
But in this case, Tebbis’s father has a house that he’s going to give to the young couple. And his idea is not that the young couple will live in the house—but, rather, that they will live with him, and his wife, and they will rent out the house. And then his son, the circuit rider, will have a means of support.
Well, Julia Hieronymus Tebbis must have been some woman. Because on her honeymoon—on the way back to Shelbyville, Kentucky—she talks her husband into devoting this house to a girls’ school. That she wants to found a girls’ academy. Not only that—she is determined that young women will be taught the same subjects as men in this school. And she calls it the Science Hill Academy. I guess it’s on a tiny rise, so that’s the hill, and the science is her ambition.
And she must have been an incredibly persuasive young woman, because she even talks her father-in-law—whom she eventually meets, and he has to swallow hard and accept these plans for a school—she talks him into buying the chemistry equipment, so that her pupils can study chemistry like young men do. And, indeed, she opens up the school three months after her first child was born—it was born nine months after they were married. She has six more children, and she runs that school for fifty-four years. And it is an incredibly successful academy for women.
She was very much influenced by Emma Willard, who had petitioned the New York legislature for women’s education. I mention that because it’s another example of—Emma Willard’s petition was published, and widely circulated—and, no doubt, fired Julia Tebbis with this idea that she, too, could found a school. And, certainly, once she found that her father-in-law had given this house that she had some resources to work with.
My last person is Alfred *Lorraine, who was another southerner. His father was a merchant in Petersburg, Virginia. Lorraine is a great storyteller—he has a wonderful sense of the vitality and the illustrative detail to get across his life story. He talks about the games that were enjoyed in Petersburg. Petersburg had a good racetrack, and there were horse races several times a year. And then there was gander-pulling, and cockfighting, and all these wonderful amusements—until the Methodists came to town. [Laughter] And then they’re all eliminated, and there is no more of this in his hometown.
He said that he grew up in the heart of slavery, and he said: This must have given me my tender feeling for the African race. And something very interesting. He said that: White parents could not raise their fences high enough to keep the children apart. And that white and black kids in Petersburg hunted together, and they fished together. But, rather, that we get too romantic a vision of slavery, he talks about—Even though it was relatively mild in Petersburg, that he had been witness, occasionally, to exhibitions of its ugliness. And the story he tells is of a man who is flayed, by having hot tallow poured all over his skin.
Like so many of my people, Lorraine’s father dies—his father was a merchant—and he has to do something. He goes to sea. And he’s going to sea in the first decade of the nineteenth century—when France and England are again at war, and much of this war is conducted on the high seas. He spends a good deal of time on the docks in London, and he tells about when fights broke out in London. And if there were fights between blacks and whites—those weren’t always the fights. But if there were, all the Cockneys would crowd around, and they would say: Give it to ’im, my African! Let him have it! Don’t you know that you are not an American now—you are in the land of freedom! The land of liberty, my boy! [Laughs] You can just imagine how he felt about that.
He saw interracial dating in London, which he had never seen before, which quite astounds him. He describes, also, a great fight over a beer house on the dock. A beer house that was frequented by Portuguese sailors. And it was so much often frequented by them that they had a flag, the Portuguese flag, up. And a bunch of American sailors decided they’re gonna take the Portuguese flag down, and they’re gonna raise the Stars and Stripes—which they proceed to do. And this leads to a great rumble.
And, according to Lorraine, the Americans raised quite an army—a considerable army. So everybody is coming all over—to either participate in or to witness this fight. And there are a bunch of Irish running towards it. And these Englishmen call out and ask them which side they’re going to be on. And the Irish say: Why, America, for sure! Because I hear that there’s a little Ireland there. [Laughter] That’s in 1809.
After several years he sails with—Lorraine, who’s a southerner—sails with a New England crew—captain and crew—and he compares them to the southern crews. And it’s kind of interesting. He said that the southern seamen were really citizens of the world. They really committed their life to the sea; they wore their sea riggings when they went on land; there was no sense of another life. But he said a northern captain and crew is just like a village—it’s as though they’re all neighbors. And he said they talk about deacons, and sextons, and they celebrate Thanksgiving. And they always have their Sunday clothes, and they always dress in their Sunday clothes when they go onshore—in order to go to church.
He also said something that I thought was very interesting—that there was a degree of familiarity and interaction on a northern ship, he said, that you would never find on a southern ship. Even though most of the sailors on the southern ship would have been white, he said, nonetheless, there was a great difference and division between the officers and the men.
Returning to Petersburg, Lorraine comes back in time for the War of 1812, and he joins a private regiment that’s raised to relieve the forces in Detroit. That is to say, all over the country there are groups that are raising regiments. And he joins this regiment, and they are marching from Petersburg to Detroit. They don’t relieve it, and they don’t get there in time.
But, at any rate, they go out of their way to stop at Monticello. They trek about fifty miles out of their way. And he talks about how: When we got there, we drew up in military array, at the base of the hill on which the great house was erected. About halfway down the hill stood a very homely old man, dressed in plain Virginian cloth—his head uncovered, and his venerable locks flowing in the wind. We joked about who it could be but how we were astonished when he advanced to our officers and introduced himself as Thomas Jefferson.
Lorraine goes on after the war to New Orleans, and he becomes a minister along the way, and he has a couple of brothers living in New Orleans. And there he is exposed to dueling—widespread dueling. And because he’s a minister, he tries to talk people out of dueling. He certainly tries to talk his brothers out of dueling.
And I mention this aspect of his memoir, because one of the things that I found, that I was quite astounded by, was the prevalence of dueling. And it has to do with the radicalizing of politics that I talked about earlier. Dueling was introduced to America by European officers who came here to fight in the American Revolution. There had never been duels before that. Might have been one or two, but it was not common.
But European duels were mainly fought by either college students or military officers. They were fought over gambling debts, or insults, or competition for women. But in the United States, in the forty years after the Revolution, three-quarters of all duels were fought over politics—over political differences. And what I realized—and I’ll give you an idea of the extent of this. I think it’s in 1816, the Boston Register writes an article, and they estimate that 100 people have been killed in duels. It’s a lot of people killed when you think what bad marks they, and awful pistols—[laughs]—and how many duels are—You know, people were wounded, or they’re composed before they actually get the guns.
But I realized that this had to do with the lack of familiarity with party politics. These men were not used to being contradicted, or being said that their policy position was erroneous. These were insults to their honor. And they felt they had to respond when someone on the floor of the Massachusetts legislature, or the House of Representatives— Someone gave a stirring political speech that was insulting to them. In Virginia—*Bladensburg, Virginia—was the congressional dueling field.
So I add that, just to tell you—to emphasize this point about the political duels. Lorraine himself said that: No one could refuse an invitation to a duel, unless the person was known to be religious. Then hardly an official or political man has escaped being called into the field. And this was true throughout North and South—though it tapers off in the North much earlier.
Daniel Drake was part of the westward movement, which began in earnest after the War of 1812, and his family pioneers in Virginia. The native population on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains had never been disturbed. They lived in their ancestral lands, and they put up fierce opposition to the migration of easterners into the West. The American army has two decisive battles—in 1794, 1811—that opens up wide territory to the settlers.
But these settlers really are an advancing army—and they come armed, and they form forts in these early days. So I think— We sort of these pictures of these peaceful wagons going forward. And I think we ought to recognize that these wagons are effectively adding to the national domain—as they move forward with what is an informal army, as well as the settlers, the families, to take possession.
In Drake’s case, his family came with four other families from New Jersey, and they buy 1,400 acres when they settle in a spot in Kentucky. His father pays for his part of the land by selling his wagon. I sort of think that’s sort of burning your bridges. I mean, you get your wagon, and then you sell your wagon to pay for your part. And they form a station, and they live in that station at night for many, many months—armed against any kind of an attack.
Drake is a wonderful chronicler of frontier events—of corn frolics, and house-raisings, and harvests. And he also has a lot on women’s work—because, for some reason, he was drafted into helping his mother. He also remembers the joy of finding a copy of Robinson Crusoe that, somehow, had made its way to *Mayslick, Kentucky.
His father commits him to a career as a doctor. And as his gift to God for having settled successfully in Kentucky— Like Washburn, Drake is committed to temperance as a young man—and he doesn’t give a very pretty picture of frontier entertainment. He said: Weddings were commonly in the daytime and were scenes of carousal, and mirth and merriment of a no very chastent character. He said: The cornhusking competitions of games and fights were always accompanied by drinking. Either before or after eating, the fighting would take place and by midnight the sober were found assisting the drunken home. Such was one of my autumnal schools, from the age of nine to fifteen.
Drake goes on to become a great leader in Cincinnati. He goes there to become a doctor when it had a population of 400, and he stays to found just about every organization that they have in Cincinnati—every cultural society, in addition to a couple of medical schools. And, for that reason, he’s called the Benjamin Franklin of Cincinnati.
I want to close by just reading a passage from a manuscript that Drake wrote about his marriage. He married at twenty-two, to Harriet *Sissen, and after twenty-five years she dies. He wrote an autobiography that was published, but he wrote a manuscript which he calls “Emotions, Reflections and Anticipations,” in which he describes this marriage of his. And while it’s not typical, I found many examples of it—and so many examples that I had to have a chapter on intimacy in my book:
We began the world in love, and hope and poverty. It was all before us, and we were under the influence of the same ambition to possess it. To acquire not wealth, merely, but friends, knowledge, influence, distinction. We had equal industry and equal aspiration.
And then he goes on to describe his wife’s intellectual flowering. How, after she marries him, that he introduces her to all kinds of books. But then she’s soon surpassing him and becomes his severest critic. They went everywhere together. She’d wait, when he went on house calls, in the gig: I had not separate social or sensual gratifications—no tavern orgies, no political-club recreations, no dissipated pleasures nor companions. Society was no society to me without her presence and cooperation. A more devoted wife and mother never lived.
Well, let me just pull a couple of themes from these. What I think is really interesting is the ambition that was released by the Revolution, and the way in which it was young people who seized those ambitions. And they weren’t just material ambitions—they were spiritual ambitions; they were Individual ambitions. There was just a scope for action that hadn’t been there before. And I think, as I say, young people had the— Control of their fathers, more than anything else, was relieved, because they could get out of their father’s lives, by becoming a schoolteacher; becoming a peddler.
There’s also the powerful role of the press that I described to you. Organizational skills are demonstrated by this generation that are quite remarkable. All those voluntary associations that have always been associated with American culture were formed in this period. Every town had dozens of them.
Opportunity was far from evenhanded—I do want to emphasize that. It came to men before women; it came to whites before blacks; it came to readers and writers before manual laborers; it came to the youthful before their elders. But there was especially opportunity around, so that even those on the deficit side of luck were affected by that.
So what we see are very self-conscious shapers of a liberal society. And the pattern of this generation’s response to what they could do in an independent country very much affected how Americans in the nineteenth century defined what it was to be an American. There was a new conception of politics, which converged with a new appreciation of enterprise, and working through this transformation was a new ideal. It was a masculine ideal, but it was of the independent man. A man of virtue who drew upon his own resources to make his way in life. It was not the American Adam, but it was more American homo *faber—man the builder.
But what these American white men did not anticipate was that blacks, and women, and laborers, and immigrants would claim their rights with the same virtues in the years to come. Thank you.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to get free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.