dRoad to the Middle Class: Chapter 5 The Nineteenth Century From The Bottom Up - by Christopher Chantrill
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Chapter 5:
The Nineteenth Century From the Bottom Up

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What d’yer think I am, dumb or somep’n? —Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain

TO THE UPPER CRUST, the nineteenth century was a never-ending worry.  The old order was coming to an end, the cyclical world of agriculture and its wealth in land.  New and frightening forces had broken in upon this timeless idyll, and nobody knew where it would lead.  You never knew if the new and frightening economic and political forces raging past your villa would rise up suddenly and engulf you.  But the ordinary people had different worries.  They lived their lives right in the middle of the raging torrent, and expected every moment to be swamped and ruined.  If the upper crust fretted and worried, the lower orders were happy just to have survived another day.

We know what the elites thought about the nineteenth century.  They wrote books about their experiences.  But the poor don’t write books.  They live in a face-to-face world and if they relate their life experience it is from father to son or mother to daughter.  Pretty soon, their memories are gone.  Books about the poor are written not by the poor, but by middle-class scholars, activists, writers, and journalists.  Any report on life experienced by the ordinary person on the street passes through many hands before it reach the reading public, and is colored by the agenda of the writer and his intended audience, and heavily influenced by the gravitational pull of several successful literary and political genres invented in the nineteenth century: the poor as a problem, the poor as a threat, the poor as victims of scandalous neglect, the poor as victims of rank oppression and exploitation, the poor as a colorful tableau, and the poor as plucky heroes.  Any view of the poor is necessarily colored by one of these filters.

The two classic books about the nineteenth century poor illustrate this problem.  Henry Mayhew’s classic journalism about London Labour and The London Poor belonged to the tableau genre, depicting the colorful and often desperate conditions of life for the poor in London in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Mayhew brought the work and the way of life in London’s streets to life without an obvious agenda beyond the journalist’s need to entertain his audience with a good story.  But his story describes only a subset of London’s poor, those who made their living as peddlers and barrow boys on the streets.  Forty years later, Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives in New York City clearly belonged to the victims-of-scandalous-neglect genre.  His purpose in describing the living conditions of the poor immigrants in Manhattan in the 1880s was to recommend improvements in the material construction of the city tenements in which the poor lived.  Riis’s reader is frequently encouraged to be scandalized by the flimsy accommodations afforded for the poor and difficulty of living a decent life in such conditions.  Apparently the rich and powerful in New York City had made no effort to prepare in advance for the influx of immigrants that had swept into the city in the middle of the nineteenth century.  But in both narratives the poor exist as objects in a literary tableau.  We cannot know how the poor would have presented themselves to the reader.  We only know how journalists Mayhew and Riis presented them to us.

When the world moves on, what happens to the people who get left behind?  They become, like Singin’ in the Rain’s  silent screen goddess Lina Lamont, an embarrassment.  Ever since the nineteenth century dawned with clouds of daffodils and nations in arms, the slow stolid road to the middle class, the self-directed pilgrimage through religion, education, and the city of laws has seemed to the impatient elite if not outright embarrassing, then certainly too slow, too cranky, too indirect for long continuance.  And yet, as Hanna Rosin witnessed down in South Carolina and as James Ault Jr. witnessed in Worcester, Massachusetts, the rising middle class at the beginning of the twenty-first century still uses religion and “the best education” to power the journey from rural idiocy to city competence.  Despite two hundred years of unrelenting progressive propaganda from the chattering classes, ordinary people like Mary Johnston and the Pastot Valenti still cleave to enthusiastic Protestantism and back-to-basics education.  It is astonishing that there live so many people who seem to have filtered out the elite’s propaganda and avoided the elite’s program for them.  Were there people like Mary Johnston and Pastor Valenti in the early nineteenth century?  And also at the end of the century?  How would we find out?

In the previous chapter, we saw the kind of brave new world the educated elite wanted to build in the nineteenth century: the vision they had, the ideas they spawned, the stories they wanted to write, and the institutions they built to implement their vision.  Now it is time to examine the authentic institutions that the ordinary people developed for themselves during the nineteenth century in the decades before the elites seized them and replaced them with government monopoly education and with welfare run by the elites and their experts.  Perhaps the authentic institutions will tell us the story of the ordinary people in the nineteenth century, the story of the nineteenth century from the bottom up. 

While the sons of the bourgeoisie were founding the religion of creativity and the universal society of care and compassion, the poor city immigrants had had a more pressing agenda.  They had to survive their first years in the teeming city and learn, if they could, to thrive in it.  So they built their own institutions to cope with city life and to realize their hopes and dreams.  Because the lower orders necessarily do not participate directly in politics except occasionally as the mob, but vicariously through leaders and demagogues, its worldview is not exactly a worldview, but a neighborhood view, its culture a subculture.  Their story is a story about people living and working, families and neighbors, doing the best they can with what they possess. 

In the nineteenth century ordinary people built their own institutions from the bottom up in a subculture that often operated outside the realm of politics.  Uncelebrated by history, many of these institutions have fallen down the memory hole or been defined by the left as twisted and rotten.  Others, of course, have been taken up and celebrated by the chattering class.  But in the nineteenth century these institutions served the people in education, in religion, in mutual-aid, and in enterprise.  From this thick underbrush of associations, noted by de Tocqueville in 1831, the little people not only learned how to rise, but also in great measure taught themselves, by the responsibilities they assumed and the institutions they built, the skills they needed for competence and prosperity in the city.

For ordinary people the nineteenth century was a great age of education, characterized in Europe and North America by rapidly increasing rates of literacy.  But the real work had been done before the advent of the common school movement in the 1830s and universal education in the 1870s.  In England, the lower orders had actively sought out education, even during the early years of the century when the government discouraged education for the poor on the grounds that it would encourage radical political ideas.  The United States had enjoyed high literacy since early colonial times, and the laboring classes early in the nineteenth century sought a universal provision for education.

As we shall see in a following chapter, education has often tended to fall under elite political influence, and be used as a weapon of political power to advance the political interests of dominant groups in society.  But education for the lower orders has always been a practical affair of acquiring the skills and practical knowledge to necessary to rise above menial manual labor, so that the son of the miner need not go down the mine, and the daughter of the farmer need not go into the textile mill.

In England, social observers noticed the rage for education early in the nineteenth century.  J. S. Mill found that every village around London had some sort of school, usually fee-paying, in which children were taught basic literacy and numeracy.  People were prepared to sacrifice for their children and Mill observed that many families subsisted on potatoes to be able to afford their school fees. 

In the United States a varied system of education had obtained since colonial times.  Most schools were fee-paying and most communities provided for the education of poor children through a combination of philanthropy, religious schools, or government subsidy.  But the poor felt humiliated by the necessity of declaring indigence in order to obtain a subsidized education.  By mid-century, the various tides of elite opinion combined to infect education with political agendas, principally anti-Catholicism.  When the Catholic Irish applied to enjoy the subsidies enjoyed by Protestant religious schools, the Protestant elites suddenly discovered the principle of the separation of church and state, and most states ended up with bigoted Blaine amendments to their constitution to forbid public subsidy of religious education.  The Catholic Irish responded by building their own school system within the Catholic Church while the Protestants developed the government school system that began by teaching a bland Protestantism and ended a century later with “values clarification.”  By the late nineteenth century in New York City, according to Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives, all parents sent their children to school as a matter of course unless they needed a child’s wages for food.

In France and Germany, on the other hand, the lower orders had no opportunity to choose an education for their children.  In the numeric ascent through various republics and empires the French school system became a political football between the religious conservatives and the secular republicans and used to indoctrinate children in the worldview of the party in power.  In Prussia, of course, universal education was organized by the government to provide educated soldiers for a revanchist Prussian army that would keep the French west of the Rhine.

Did the lower orders really seek out education for their children in the nineteenth century?  Did they make competent decisions in school selection?  Or did they need, even then, the assistance of experts and the intervention of government?  Or is education for their children too complex a subject for ordinary folk to be able to make the right decisions?  We shall examine these issues in Chapter 7.

For ordinary people the nineteenth century was a great age of mutual aid.  In England, the friendly society afforded the protections of death benefits and rudimentary life insurance to the respectable poor.  In the United States, a complex culture of fraternal organizations provided death benefits, widows’ assistance, life insurance, job referral networks, and a social gathering place.  Immigrant groups were quick to develop mutual aid organizations.  The Jews in the Lower East Side of New York had such a large network that social workers were unable to disentangle the extent of its web.  The Irish developed their own network centered upon the Catholic Church.

Today, the friendly society has dropped off the radar of British society, except for an occasional reference in some Labour Party politician’s speech when praising the joint contribution of friendly societies and trades unions to the progressive vision.  In the United States, the great ugly buildings of the fraternal organizations now echo with the activities of sub-tenants, the old meeting rooms converted into dance studios.  The Elks, the Masons, the Eagles, and the Moose: what was the point of them?  Fifty years to one hundred years ago, such a question would have been unnecessary.  Everyone belonged, and everyone understood.  The local lodge provided funeral benefits, life insurance, health benefits, “employment information, temporary lodging, and character references.” (Beito 2000 p8)

Since members were expected to help each other, to favor their brothers over others, it was important that members maintained a good character.  Many societies maintained specific sanctions against misconduct—such as expulsion for being a common drunkard—while benefits were more informal.  This made economic sense in an age when actuarial science and risk evaluation were still embryonic, and the rules and sanctions helped weed out—or straighten out—the poor risks.

By the peak of the fraternal movement in 1920, it was estimated that nearly 50 percent of working class males belonged to a fraternal lodge, participating in its menu of mutual aid.  Of course, Americans joined fraternal societies for a variety of reasons, from sick and death benefits to expanded social ties.  But most of all, the fraternal lodge represented a set of values.  Writes Beito:

Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character.  These values reflected a fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, gender, and income.

Nor was the boss necessarily the leader, and the employee the follower.  In the rotation of offices, the roles of leader and follower could often change, and the business owner might be an ordinary member when his employee served as Grand Master of the local lodge.

The story of the friendly society and fraternalism is now almost forgotten, its role and function replaced by the expert-inspired and expert-run welfare state.  But we shall attempt to revive its memory in Chapter 8.

For ordinary people the nineteenth century was a great age of religion.  While the elite in Europe and the United States experienced the death of God as their spiritual needs diverged from the gospel of Jesus Christ, ordinary people flocked to churches and responded in their millions to the preaching of modern prophets.  Contrary to received wisdom, the Revolutionary Americans were not all dour Puritans and dutiful churchgoers.  In 1776, only 17 percent of Americans were religious adherents.  But by 1850, the rate had doubled to 35 percent, and by 1890 it had increased further to 45 percent. (Finke 1992 p16)  The meaning of these numbers needs to be emphasized.  Over the seventy five years from 1776 to 1850, when the population of the United States increased from 3.9 million to 23.2 million, the proportion of people who belonged to a church climbed from one in six to one in three, in other words from 660,000 members to 8,100,000.  At exactly the period that the educated elite were beginning to experience the Death of God, churchgoing and religious belief began to climb sharply among ordinary people, both in relative and in absolute terms.  By the end of the century, in 1890, the proportion of Americans who were religious adherents had increased by over two and a half times.  In terms of actual church members, the numbers had increased from 660,000 to 28 million in a little over a hundred years.

The first half of the nineteenth century was dominated by the growth of Methodism and the Baptist movement, with Methodism representing 34 percent of religious believers by 1850.  Meanwhile the old Puritan churches merely maintained their memberships and declined in relative terms to 3-4 percent of believers.  The vehicle of Methodist growth was the revival meeting, developed from the techniques pioneering in the eighteenth century by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. 

The United States began the nineteenth century as an overwhelmingly Protestant country.  As the century progressed, however, a trickle of Catholics began to cross the Atlantic, swelling to a tidal wave as the potato blight sent millions of Irish to North America.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Catholics from other nations, notably Italy, joined the flood.  But the Catholic Church in America could not just re-enroll their co-religionists from the old country.  The immigrants were just as unchurched as the revolutionary generation of 1776.  In the mid-century, the Irish “seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy.”(Stern 1997)  Yet by the end of the century: “the sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who had been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery,” and the educated elites had begun to complain about the “Puritanism” of the Irish.  The Italians were just as bad.  Archbishop Corrigan of New York in 1888 noted that of 80,000 Italian immigrants in the city, barely 2 percent went to church.  The Irish clergy were uncertain how to communicate their problem to the pope in Rome, for they found the Italians ignorant of religion and immured in “a depth of vice little known to us yet.” (Finke 1992 p116)  In Chicago, the clergy found the Italians of southern Italy and Sicily “unexcelled in their ignorance of religion.”  But the Irish hierarchy was not discouraged.  Under their leadership the Catholics managed an explosive growth, from 1 million adherents in 1850 to 7.3 million in 1880.  The architect of this remarkable achievement was John Hughes, born in 1797 the son of a poor farmer from County Tyrone in Ireland.

The explosion of popular religion in the nineteenth century was the work of outstanding religious entrepreneurs, men like Charles Grandisson Finney, John Hughes, and Joseph Smith.  We shall see how they did it in Chapter 6.

For ordinary people, the nineteenth century was a great age for enterprise.  They played a central role in the nursing and weaning of that central and still controversial institution of the modern era: the modern business corporation.  At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the big commercial enterprises were government-sponsored monopolies owned by the great and the good: the British and Dutch East India Companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the great enterprises were Standard Oil, United States Steel, and the great railroads.  It is common to imagine that these great enterprises were developed by a cabal of robber barons, a conspiracy of pirates who preyed off honest workers and consumers and used their ill-gotten profits to buy elected politicians and keep them bought.  Maybe they were, but they were hardly hereditary economic barons inheriting father’s cozy monopoly.  Even the man who did the most to sell the idea of The Robber Barons, Matthew Josephson, admitted that almost all of the captains of industry came from humble beginnings.  Jay Cooke, financier of the Civil War, was the son of a frontier lawyer and settler in Sandusky, Ohio.  Jay Gould, the railroad manipulator, passed his childhood in “naked poverty” in Roxbury, New York.  Andrew Carnegie, the founder of Big Steel, was the son of a handloom damask weaver in Dunfermline, Scotland.  His family emigrated after being reduced to penury by the new power looms; they arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1848, dead broke.  James J. Hill, railroad baron, came from hardscrabble farmers in Ontario.  John D. Rockefeller, founder of Big Oil, was the son of an itinerant medicine man and bigamist, the eldest of five children who was forced to help his mother run the tiny family farm, the base from which his father roamed the countryside selling patent medicines.  Richard Sears was the son of a farmer and blacksmith.  When his father died he became, at age 16, the support of his family.  He was working as a railroad agent at Redwood Falls, Minnesota when a local merchant refused a shipment of watches, and he decided to buy them and resell them himself.  By the early 1890s Sears had turned his watch deal into a company with a 52-page catalog, Sears Roebuck.  Only J.P. Morgan, railroad merger and acquisition czar, was the scion of privilege, a banker who was the son of a banker.  But Morgan learned his trade from Anthony Drexel, the son of an Austrian draft-dodger.

The image that Josephson conjured up in The Robber Barons is that the great industrialists were the moral equivalent of the medieval robber barons whose strongholds sat astride the “strategic valley roads or mountain passes through which commerce flowed.”  (Josephson 1962 vi)  The great industrialists saw their opportunity and they took it, riding one day up to a ridge and discovering a strategic choke point that could be dominated and monopolized.  In fact, the so-called robber barons mostly got rich with breakthrough inventions and hard work.  Jay Cooke got to sell the bonds that financed the Civil War because he figured out how to sell them: in a massive publicity campaign advertising in all the newspapers, in feeding and watering financial reporters, and in “dunning each war contractor and military supplier.”  Carnegie prospered by building cutting-edge blast furnaces and integrated steel mills, developing his own sources of iron ore, and making his company the world’s low-cost steel producer.  Rockefeller invented the modern corporation with its committees, its pensions, and benefits; he branded his illuminating oil as “standard,” consistent in quality and not liable to explode, and developed the railroad unit-train and the pipeline for efficient overland transportation of bulk commodities.  James J. Hill was another low-cost man, consistently improving his Great Northern railroad by reducing curves and grades and improving rails and roadbeds so that he was always able to undercut the costs of the Northern Pacific between Minneapolis and the Pacific Northwest.  Except for Morgan, these were not expensively educated men.  Jay Gould had to plead with his father to be allowed to go the local village school.  Rockefeller’s education was completed at a commercial business school where he learned bookkeeping. 

The men described above were, of course, not typical.  They were the standouts, blessed with extraordinary luck that leveraged their dogged will and drive to succeed into extraordinary wealth at the head of unprecedented business enterprises.  But they began as ordinary men who went on to do extraordinary things.  Far from being robber barons, rogue princes of the land who had learned to prey upon legitimate commerce, these men accomplished a revolution from below with creative and wealth-enhancing innovations to mundane products: reducing the cost of oil by an order of magnitude; reducing the cost of steel by a factor of five; moving railroads beyond the land-grant boondoggle founded on political connections to a genuine business based on connecting markets and lowering the costs of freight forwarding. 

Conceived and executed under the radar without the participation and blessing of the well-born and the well-connected, the revolution from below was experienced as an insult by the great and the good.  In the Progressive Era and the Great Depression the swells got their revenge.  Josephson, the businessman’s tormentor was a bourgeois bohemian, son of a Jewish immigrant who had risen from printer’s devil to Brooklyn banker.  He was born in 1899, went to Columbia on Daddy’s money and got creativity, joined the literary ex-patriates in Europe in the 1920s, and in the 1930s began writing about the horrors of capitalism just in time to find a ready audience in the desperate years of the Great Depression.

All these institutions echo the findings of Tocqueville in 1831, that Americans were a self-governing people.  Americans instinctively came together and formed associations to solve their problems.  In the 1990s another foreign observer came to America.  Peruvian businessman Hernando de Soto wanted to know why the United States seemed to be governed so successfully.  Why had Americans succeeded so palpably when billions of other peoples suffered under tyranny and poverty?  He found that the secret began with self-government.  When Americans found themselves in need of new law to govern their affairs, they formed associations and created a living law themselves.  In this they were similar to peoples all over the world.  In villages everywhere people adjudicate property claims with competence.  But over most of the world the living law of custom and tradition is radically at variance with the formal law owned and operated by the governing elite.  The United States government was unique in having had the good sense to accept the living law developed in private associations and encode it eventually into the statute books.  In the early nineteenth century, in direct defiance of the governing elite, pioneer American farmers developed land associations and a living law that defined a right of property to western farmers and settlers that had developed their farms out of untitled wilderness.  In the 1860s, the federal government accepted this living law in the landmark Homestead Act of 1862.  Meanwhile, the California miners in the high Sierras found themselves without an established mineral law to guide their relationships.  They formed mineral districts and developed a living law to adjudicate their claims and ownership rights.  Twenty years later the United States Congress based its new mineral laws upon the body of living law created by the self-governing miners of the California gold rush.  The good sense exhibited by the elite in the United States in incorporating living law into its statute law kept down the tension between the elite and the common people.

Not all people possess the character and the inspiration to embrace the risks of business; not all people are willing to trust in the love of God; not all people are ready to spontaneously form self-government associations to face the challenges of the times.  Unable to imagine life except as an oppressed victim, and unblessed with the skills or education to rise out of indigence, they need the support of social solidarity, the comfort of living life in the rank and file, yet they still need to cope with the challenge of living in the city.  For these people another set of institutions grew up in the nineteenth century: the labor union, the political machine, and the criminal gang.

For ordinary people the nineteenth century was a great age of labor unionism.  As the corporation developed out of medieval merchant partnerships and transformed the economy with the power of limited liability and unlimited opportunity, the labor union grew out of the medieval craft and labor guilds to provide a bulwark of solidarity against a ruthless world that treated labor merely as a commodity and that ceaselessly sought out the lowest cost labor without regard for the need of workers to feed and clothe their families.  Workers found themselves, throughout the nineteenth century, in a frantic effort to obtain a living from an economy that, in wave after wave, obsoleted ancient skills and trades, and by a revolution in transportation that encouraged even the poorest to travel across the oceans to compete for employment with native workers.  What could they do about it?  They could combine to protect their status, and make it difficult for people to compete with them, just as the guild of the medieval city had protected its members from competitors from the countryside.

But the desire to combine with fellow workers to negotiate with employers ran afoul of a judge-made common law developed over the centuries to adjudicate the problems of merchants and traders.  The law disapproved, as any world-centered merchant would, of combinations in restraint of trade, and was quick to sanction working men who combined to set wages and to prevent other laborers from competing to offer their services to employers.  Combination in restraint of trade, for labor as for employers, requires political power and the sanction of the state.  With universal male suffrage, this was not such a distant prospect.  By the 1840s in the United States working men had become a political force and Commonwealth v. Hunt established the right of workers in Massachusetts to combine in restraint of trade. 

Early attempts to form labor unions achieved limited success.  Workers typically formed unions to protect themselves against increasing prices or falling wages during the late stages of a business boom.  Such conspiracies in restraint of trade, whether organized for the benefit of workers or employers, could not protect members from the larger economic forces, and the severe business cycles of the nineteenth century tended to wipe out the fragile worker organizations.  In addition, after 1840, the spontaneous associations organized by the workers were often hindered by the efforts of middle-class Fourierists (and later, socialists) to guide their movements.  The middle-class social reformers had better organizing skills and broader agendas than simple goals of the workers, so workers would often build up new labor unions only to have them taken over by the social reformers who had broader goals than the simple unionist agenda of better wages and working conditions, a ten-hour day and limitations upon child labor.  In the renewed prosperity of the 1850s a new generation of labor activists concentrated on “pure and simple” unionism that focused on work-related issues and not on a broader social agenda. 

The war-influenced 1860s saw increased union activity, as inflationary greenbacks lowered laboring purchasing power, but the severe depression of the 1870s transformed the labor movement.  The coal miners and the railroad workers resisted wage cuts and shortened working hours with strikes and riots, and discovered that they were not as helpless as their fathers twenty years before.  These workers found themselves no longer the helpless victims of the business cycle working in the expendable handcraft industries of the pre-Civil War era but the rank and file in labor armies working for the vast new railroads, the first really large-scale enterprises in North America.  And the railroads for which they worked had become the arterial system through which the nation’s entire commerce now throbbed.  All of a sudden the humble laborer, expendable in the early decades of the century, had become indispensable, integrated into the complex new economic machine of factory, mine, and steam transportation that could not be allowed to grind to a halt.  Led by remarkable immigrant leaders like Samuel Gompers, the workers were able to demand, in certain landmark industries, monopoly prices for their labor.  And they were able to keep the social reformers and bay and keep their movement focused on working class concerns, a band of brothers united in solidarity against a world of cruel oppressors.

Another important popular institution that got its start in the nineteenth century is the big city political machine, an institution that sits truculently at the intersection of feudal, democratic, and tribal politics, and no city is more notorious for its political machine than New York City.  Mid-nineteenth century New York developed a free-wheeling politics based on loyalty to charismatic leaders, the importance of “maintaining order” at political meetings, and controlling the spigot of patronage that flowed out from city coffers to the street.  In the rougher neighborhoods in the 1830s this politics began with ambitious young men rising through volunteer fire companies or the police department to minor elected offices like street inspector or assistant alderman.  Charismatic foremen of fire companies had an advantage in politics because their rank and file could be turned into political enforcers at primary election meetings and on Election Day.  “Boss” William M. Tweed began his political career as a fire company foreman.  Liquor dealers and grocers were also influential citizens whose immigrant customers trusted their political knowledge and advice.  By the end of the Civil War, New York politics had been organized into a well-defined hierarchy controlled by Tammany Hall.  The Democratic city “boss” sat at the top, his lieutenants each controlling one of the city’s state assembly districts and supervising the individual ward leaders.  The hierarchy continued down from wards to election districts to individual blocks and even buildings.  In the early days, of course, before the Civil War, factional leaders fought with their fists for control of each ward. 

Big city politicians were the first to see opportunity instead of threat in the waves of immigrants that started to break on the shore in the mid-nineteenth century.  The immigrant might not have had any skills, he might not have had any influence, he might not have had any money, but he did have a vote.  And Tammany Hall learned how to earn the vote of the immigrant and turn it into political power.  It reached out to the immigrant, attended his weddings and funerals, bailed him out of jail, and found him a job.  In return all it asked for, and it was little enough, was his vote, and from the fortunate holder of a city job appropriate gratitude in the form of a modest contribution.  The immigrant was glad enough to give.  For years the best and brightest fought against the machine and attempted in various civic “reform” movements to drive out the clan politics of the machine.  In the Progressive era, they nearly did so.  But in the 1930s, the aristocrat Franklin Roosevelt transformed the Democratic Party into a national tribute to Tammany Hall.  The Depression era leaders of the Democratic Party transformed a system of government designed for propertied, self-governing citizens into a system resonating with tribalism and patronage that served immigrant masses used to subordination to the village “big man” or the clan chieftain.

Last but not least is the criminal gang.  Lee Harris has extolled the great achievement of the west, how it transformed the extended family into the nuclear family and the teenage gang into the cooperative team. (Harris 2004) But you have to start somewhere, and every cohort of immigrants that has come to the city since the mid-nineteenth century has made its contribution to the saga of the teenage urban criminal gang.  In 1928 Herbert Asbury enumerated The Gangs of New York that had terrorized the city over the previous century.  Jews, Italians, African-Americans: their young adult males each added a chapter to the history of the urban gang on the road to middle-class respectability.  In the early twenty-first century there are reports of Hispanic gangs beginning to threaten the urban peace.

In his Race and Culture trilogy published between 1993 and 1998, Thomas Sowell surveyed the relative success achieved by different immigrant groups to the United States.  As an African-American, he was particularly interested in the groups that did not immediately fare well: the Irish, the Scots-Irish that settled the valleys of Appalachia, and the blacks.  He wanted to know why they failed to thrive.  He concluded that the speed of assimilation was closely related to the degree to which immigrants had already acculturated to law and education.  Those that came from a disordered milieu where disputes were settled by force and feud, and who lacked basic literacy, had the most trouble assimilating in the United States.

The institutions described in this chapter are spontaneous, bottom-up movements that seem designed to offer their members experience and education in law and literacy, hot-houses for acquiring the focus and discipline needed to function in the modern industrial city, with skills and with a willingness to submit to the rule of law rather than the rule of force.  As the revivalist preacher remarked, they wake people up from the sleep of ages, to the astonishing idea that they can be responsible beings, called to a life of purpose by a God that will never forsake them.  At the center of this universe of self-improvement were the enthusiastic Christian churches, the fraternal mutual-aid associations, and the school.  For those unable or unready to walk the road to the middle class, labor unions and political machines provided a means for the “rank and file” to be represented in their dealings with the world by elected or self-selected leaders In these organizations they could delay facing the challenge of self-direction and self-reliance, and continue for the time being as helpless victims in the sleep of ages. 

This ground level view of the nineteenth century contrasts strongly with the view from the top developed in the previous chapter.  There the vision embraces creativity, transcending the rules, and developing a global community free from the particularistic vices of localism and tribalism and the distrust of the “other.”  The view from below is very different, and hardly interesting to the visionaries who dreamed and planned of a world safe for creativity and freed from the yoke of superstitious religion and tribalism.

But now we must examine in more detail the four key institutions that ordinary people used to help them thrive in the city, and that developed their essential form in the nineteenth century: enthusiastic Christianity, popular education, mutual-aid, and self-government, the art of living under law.  Practical and down-to-earth, these great human institutions form the four lanes of the road to the middle class.


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 TAGS


Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures


German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Knowledge

Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill