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  An American Manifesto
Friday October 24, 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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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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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


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