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  An American Manifesto
Monday July 28, 2014 
by Christopher Chantrill Follow chrischantrill on Twitter

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ROAD TO THE

MIDDLE CLASS

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Bibliography

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.


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Click for Chapter 6: Popular Religion in the Nineteenth Century

 

Buy the ebook: Road to the Middle Class: only $0.99.

 

Your comments are welcome. Please e-mail to Christopher Chantrill at mailto:chrischantrill@gmail.com, and take the RMC test here.

 TAGS


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Racial Discrimination

[T]he way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


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


Sacrifice

[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values


Pentecostalism

Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family...
David Martin, On Secularization


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill