ROAD TO THE
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What dyer think I am, dumb or somepn? 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 dont 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 Mayhews 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 Londons streets to life without an obvious agenda beyond the journalists need to entertain his audience with a good story. But his story describes only a subset of Londons poor, those who made their living as peddlers and barrow boys on the streets. Forty years later, Jacob Riiss 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. Riiss 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 Rains 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 elites propaganda and avoided the elites 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
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey 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
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
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
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
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
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
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
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.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
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
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
[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