Hating America: A History » Chapter 2-The Distasteful Republic
THE DISTASTEFUL REPUBLIC
The United States was a revolutionary experiment, a new type of country without a monarch, aristocracy, strong traditions, official religion, or rigid class system. As the British journalist Henry Fairlie later wrote of this era, “One thing was agreed. For good or ill, America was the omen of something new that was happening in the world.” If the United States succeeded in proving itself a better way of organizing a society the status quo in every other every existing polity would be questioned and might well be jeopardized.
In the American republic’s early years, this potential threat was handled largely through ridicule. By portraying America as an obvious and inevitable failure European critics hoped that no one would follow its example and thus the danger would be averted.
The idea that civilization could never arise in America, the degeneracy theory, had been the first stage of anti-Americanism. The second stage was the claim that the Americans’ efforts to create one had failed. This view generally dominated the anti-American critique in the years between the creation of the U.S. system in 1783 until roughly the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Of course, some Europeans did think that the United States was offering a vision of something new and fresh they wanted for their own countries. The popular German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, penned an ode to the United States embodying that view:
America, thy happy lot
above old Europe’s I exalt:
Though hast no castle ruin hoar
No giant columns of basalt.
Thy soul is not troubled
In living light of day
By useless traditions,
vain strife and array.
With reform and revolution-minded Europeans being inspired by the American precedent, their political adversaries had all the more reason to despise and discredit it. Nineteenth-century history proved just how subversive was the American example, the appeal of its ideas and institutions. Following the establishment of the United States, a series of struggles convulsed Europe which included the French revolution, rise of a British reform movement, continent-wide upheavals in 1848, and many more skirmishes in the conflict between aristocratic and democratic rule.
While the United States did not directly sponsor foreign democratic movements, its revolution was as inspirational for the nineteenth century as the USSR’s Communist revolution was for the twentieth: the resulting political system was an alternative to all existing societies which entranced some, repelled others, and could be ignored by no one.
The founders and early leaders of the United States were aware of their unique role as a democratic revolution confronting countries with a different system. “The Royalists everywhere detest and despise us as Republicans,” wrote John Quincy Adams shortly after the triumph of European reaction at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. America’s political principles “make the throne of every European monarch rock under him as with the throes of an earthquake.” America’s growth and prosperity would naturally arouse jealousy and antagonism abroad because if its role as an alternative model.
In a July 4, 1821 speech in Washington before an audience including the European diplomatic corps, then President John Quincy Adams explained that America represented a new type of government, “Destined to cover the surface of the globe. It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude.”
For those viewing the United States as a threat to all existing Western civilization, destructive of order and an enemy of traditional values, discrediting it became a matter of life and death. Such was literally the case for Simon Linguet, a French lawyer, who warned in the 1780s that a rabble of adventurers would use the continent’s rich resources to make the United States a great economic power. Eventually, he predicted, America’s armies would cross the Atlantic, subjugate Europe, and destroy civilization. Linguet did not have to wait long to see the society he revered destroyed by new ideas paralleling those in America. He was guillotined by the French revolution in 1794.
In Britain, for the majority of the upper class seeking to limit democracy, the French revolution’s terror and disorder confirmed their fear that the kind of liberty and equality existing in America was dangerous. “Britain …has naught to learn from the present state of American democracy,” wrote a clergyman named George Lewis in 1845 after spending several years in America, “except to thank God for the more compact and secure fabric of British freedom.”
Most Europeans visiting America to write about it—as opposed to those who went there as immigrants—were wealthy, conservative, and not predisposed to sympathy with the new country. Only the rich could afford the cost and time required for such a voyage. Most of them were repelled by that nation’s basic precepts, democratic political institutions, and primitive cultural level.
Yet even when accurately noting the new country’s problems, critics often wrongly insisted that these faults were innate in the American system rather than correctable over time. Of course, America was still very much a society in development but many of its symptoms were those of youth which experience and experiment would correct. Yet, at the same time, it was also true that there was a spirit of America different from that of Europe. Many of the characteristics Europeans disliked—like classlessness, secularism, and informality—derived from broader trends of modernity which—though few realized it in the early nineteenth-century—would come to characterize Western society in general.
Equally, the emerging American society was the global prophet of a pragmatic world view not to European taste, especially outside of Britain. This notion, so thoroughly integrated into their life and culture as to be taken for granted by Americans, can simply be described as judging any system, institution, or idea on how well it works in practice and a readiness to discard whatever fails that test. In contrast, European civilization up to that time—and to a large extent since then–judged everything on how well it accorded to past practices. Change was viewed as dangerous and destabilizing; the benefit of the doubt rested with the status quo. Innovations were often judged not on their own merit but rather on whether they fit with some pre-existing doctrine or theory of how things should work.
Obviously, a pragmatic approach can mean jettisoning much that is good. Anti-Americans saw it as a general assault on tradition, high cultural standards, intellectual life, and all the good things of the past they cherished. They were blind to the benefits of that powerful American optimism and readiness for change which kept the door open to beneficial innovations while facilitating the correction of faults. Moreover, pragmatism was the basis for modernization and for challenging all the past’s bad, non-functional aspects. Pragmatism was America’s great philosophical and practical innovation. All the specific aspects of its model—equality, free enterprise, democracy, human rights, industrialization, and so on—related to this world view.
While all the negative claims about America did not discourage many thousands of immigrants from going to America, they certainly shaped the views of future Europeans, those left behind who had never been there. It often seems, too, as if Europe’s rejection of many factors at the root of future American success were reasons why it would fall behind in many arenas. Indeed, it was a mistake for the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to couple in his condemnation of America “the most vile [pragmatism] combined with its inevitable companion, ignorance.” Ultimately, it was precisely American practicality that inspired battles against ignorance.
One of the most disconcerting notions emerging from the U.S. system was the advocacy of equality, not as some abstract ideal but as a reality of daily life. The assumption was that the best way to maximize human potential was to give the largest number of people the best possible chance of contributing to society. And if this goal was far from fully realized at the start of the United States, it was a society which continued to evolve toward implementing that principle.
Of course, people did not remain equal in practice. Some factor would determine the rise and fall of individuals’ status. The nineteenth-century American measure of success, still a key theme today despite many changes in emphasis, was that worldly achievement would be largely the result of ability and hard work. This was a reaction against a Europe which Americans saw as bound by an aristocratic system that rewarded people simply for the good fortune of their birth. In contrast, most Europeans argued that by giving primacy to those who were literally noble, their system set a high standard of manners and culture. Underneath its democratic facade, they saw America as simply giving first place to those who attained wealth.
Though surface aspects of these arguments would shift over two centuries, as Europe in some ways came to resemble America more closely, the essential difference between the viewpoints would remain. Europe would see itself as the repository of a high quality culture, spiritual values, and intellectual merit. In contrast, the idea of America was as a society in which an unbridled capitalism determined everything on the basis of profit and market rather than quality, ideas, or values. And if their own societies were moving in this wrong direction—in Europe and elsewhere—the blame was often put on the local imitation or external influence of America.
While many of these ideas developed among European conservatives in the early nineteenth century, the seeds of the left’s parallel critique could already be seen in the European romantic movement’s anti-Americanism. A country extolling materialistic pragmatism did not appeal to those extolling the transcendental glory of an organic society based on a comprehensive theory. America, then, was equally distasteful to the aristocrat who revered the European status quo and to the romantic rebel who hoped for spiritual transcendence, just as their right- and left-wing descendants would often agree only on the idea that America was not what they wanted.
As a result of their personal predilections, then, European critics often ignored the new society’s practical accomplishments and reduced the United States to a country which merely permitted, and encouraged, money-making as its ideal. To make matters worse, European intellectuals and artists could never forgive the United States for denying their class the exalted or central role which they claimed to hold in Europe.
Such achievements as freedom from the restraints of Europe’s class order, human rights, or the chance for individual betterment were discounted as dangerous illusions by the European critics. The United States was portrayed as merely an artificial creation with no animating spirit. As the Norwegian-born scientist and poet Henrik Steffens put it, America was “a classical statue, cold, motionless, it did not raise its eyes nor move its limbs and there was no living heart beating in its breast.” Its freedom was actually an insidious form of slavery. Steffens mixed his science with romantic philosophy, viewing the spread of civilization and society as leading to ever greater individualization. Like others, he found America to be dominated by conformity and the enslavement of individuals to material goods. Steffens found America to be especially repugnant since, like others who would become harsh critics, he thought it contradicted his cherished theory.
The argument that the United States was soulless gained a virtual consensus among European critics. Americans, wrote the French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle, best known as Stendhal, “seem to have done away with a part of themselves. The wells of feeling appear to have dried up; they are just, they have common sense and they are unhappy.” The French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who visited the United States in the 1790s, determined that “The American people are perhaps the people least acquainted with passion in the whole world.” Victor Jacquemont, a friend of Lafayette and a naturalist, concluded after one night in New York in 1827 that the minds of Americans were “generally merely cold, platitudinous and vulgar.” The German poet Heine echoed this theme a few years later in explaining that Americans were incapable of civilization because they “had no passion, hardly speak at all, never caress one another, care about nothing, and are lazy.”
Even as the United States was being disrespected precisely in order to undercut its real and potential influence on Europe, its ingenious political structures and remarkably original revolution were being denied. When Europeans spoke of great revolutions, either to exalt or decry them, the French and not the American model was the standard for judgment.
For conservatives, the horrors of the French revolution and the failed republic that followed showed the dangers of such experiments, a category in which they included the United States. They shuddered at its example which gave them added incentive to find the American version a failure as well, one more proof that democracy didn’t work or at best produced a dreadful society.
For romantics as well as the political radicals who were starting to preach the revolutionary transformation of their own societies, the fact that the French revolution had brought disaster to its own people and the continent—with its reign of terror, quick reversion to dictatorship, imperialist ambitions, and endless wars—was no proof that the American version was superior. For them the American counterpart was too bland, bourgeois, and boring, insufficiently utopian or theoretical. In fact, before King Louis XVI was beheaded by them, some French radicals proposed it to be a sufficiently cruel punishment to exile him to Philadelphia, then the capital of American society and culture, anticipating by 150 years the comedian W.C. Fields famous joke that being in that city was preferable only to death.
Both sides often missed the point, viewing as shortcomings precisely the factors that made America succeed. Thus, in 1823, Hulsemann denounced the country’s “incoherence” in such institutions as the “separation of powers which, as well-known, is a theoretical error.” The word “theoretical” here is most significant. The great breakthrough of Franklin, Jefferson, James Madison, and their colleagues in devising a new and workable system of government based on federalism (a division of authority between central and state governments) and checks and balances (a division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government) were of no importance.
Yet it was precisely this structure that was the centerpiece of the system’s success. Gradually, European systems would move closer to an American-style model. But in the nineteenth century, and sometimes afterward, the European left and right often extolled a centralization of power that would constantly produce failed regimes and repressive dictatorships, in France, the USSR, and throughout the Third World. Ridiculed as purely practical, America was thought incapable of producing any valid political philosophy. The fact that its system worked so well in practice was thus irrelevant. The lack of guillotines and the absence of any decline into dictatorship were not counted to its credit.
Not everyone in Europe mocked the American system but a remarkable number of people did so, including the leading philosophers and historians of the day. Often targeted for ridicule was the notion of giving the common people a voice in governing was an idea that could ever work. It was, as one French observer, Abbé Mably, wrote in his book about the government and laws of the United States in 1784, dangerous and impractical, especially because as common people went, those of the United States were particularly unimpressive.
In the words of François Soules’ 1787 history of the American revolution, “In America the wise are few indeed in comparison with the ignorant, the selfish, and those men who blindly allow themselves led.” American-style democracy was a step backward, wrote the romantic poet Heine in 1830, into a “monstrous prison of freedom” whose “invisible chains” were more oppressive than the visible ones in Germany. For in the United States, “the most repulsive of all tyrants, the populace, hold vulgar sway.” Louis Marie Turreau de Linières, former French ambassador to the United States, agreed that it was “a fraud” to let common Americans influence public affairs since they were incapable of reasoning. The Bill of Rights would cause anarchy because it would paralyze government from acting effectively.
Thus, the French novelist Stendhal, writing in 1830, concluded that American-style democracy was boring and banal because it let “the tyranny of opinion” of the small-minded masses control society. Another French writer, Felix de Beaujour, consul-general in Washington from 1804 to 1811, was so critical of the United States that the British used his book as anti-American propaganda during the War of 1812, when they again fought the Americans. Beaujour explained that unless the Senate was elected for life and the House of Representatives limited to big landowners, the U.S. government would collapse in despotism or disunion.
An economy that bred rampant materialism was seen as the counterpart of a spiritually empty society and an unworkable political system. The country’s obsession with greed combined with mob rule, Beaujour wrote, ensured that American civilization would be “ugly and vulgar, with unpolished manners, indelicate feelings, primitive social life, and conversation entirely centered on money.” In 1783, the German historian A.L. von Schlozer wrote that as a “commercial country” the United States had replaced monarch and aristocracy with “the nobility of money, which is far more dangerous and tyrannical….” The revolutionary German dramatist Karl Gutzkow expressed the same idea in the mid-nineteenth century: “It is unbelievable how easy the American can change ideas into money.”
This was a consensus view among much of the European elite and intelligentsia. Heine concluded, “Worldly utility is their true religion and money is their God, their once all-powerful God,” The stereotype of the grasping Yankee, who lived only to work and profit while neglecting all spiritual or cultural values, would remain unchanged over the decades.
As scores of European writers purveyed this image it entered the world of fiction and in many forms passed down to the following generations. In the mid 19th century, several German novels focused on the unfortunate experiences of immigrants to American that focused on the violence, theft, and fraud practiced on newcomers as well as American arrogance and greed. Some authors openly said their purpose for writing such things was to stop emigration to the United States.
For example, in his 1841 German novel, Friedrich Rulemann Eylert writes of the unhappy experiences of a German immigrant who discovers, “Degraded thinking, lying, deception, and unlimited greed are the natural and inescapable consequences of the commercial spirit…that like a tidal wave inundates the highest and lowest elements of American society. Every harmless passion and all moral sentiments are blunted in the daily pursuit of money.”
This theme is illustrated by incidents which one imagines might easily have taken place in Germany. The hero breaks an oil lamp at a hotel and is sent to jail when he cannot pay for the damage. The hotelkeeper bribes his lawyer so the poor man is sentenced to be a servant at the inn and has to work long hours. A fellow immigrant tells him the secret of success in America: work hard and deny oneself all pleasure, which the author called, “The best and truest description of the whole American character” and quite different from the German spirit.
Ferdinand Kurnberger, in his very popular 1855 tale of a similarly disillusioned German immigrant, agrees that American culture is impoverished. Newsboys sell smutty literature and a “Negro band” plays so badly that the German has to correct them. A student tells him, quoting Franklin that “time is money”—a concept particularly repugnant to the author—and that man’s purpose on earth is to produce wealth. A boarding house owner’s dilution of his champagne with brandy is a symbol of decadence. In an art gallery, puritanical Americans put clothes on Greek statues. A German immigrant who tries to spread culture in America is hung. The hero remarks, “All man are equal. Does that mean all hogs are equal? What a sham this culture is.”
The basic cultural critique of America prevalent in twentieth and twenty-first century Europe was already in place by the 1830s, long before the onset of mass production, consumerism, Hollywood, or television. Materialism plus democracy made for a spiritual emptiness. The United States was a mass culture based on the lowest common denominator. Instead of standards being set by an aristocratic and privileged class of intellectuals and artists, its society catered to the vulgar mob with low values, bad manners and a grubby materialistic outlook.
Perrin Du Lac, who visited the American frontier in the first years of the nineteenth century, turned an equally memorable phrase about how materialism destroyed any cultural or spiritual values: “A brook, were it worthy of the muse of Virgil…is nothing to them but so much pure water, so of no value.” In general, Americans only cared for material things, “A good Havana cigar, a newspaper, and a bottle of Madeira—those are the joys of an American life.” Yet those who extolled the virtues of material deprivation for the masses’ spiritual welfare rarely themselves shared in this supposedly beneficial lifestyle.
Nothing reveals the universality of this view of American materialism more than the fact that it was echoed by even one of the greatest European defender of the United States, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville. Americans, he explained, were so insensible to the wonders of nature that they only “perceive the mighty forests that surround them [when] they fall beneath the hatchet.” In sum, he concluded, “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests–in one word, anti-poetic–as the life of a man in the United States.”
The story behind Tocqueville’s trip to the United States gives important clues to the disdainful conclusions of so many European visitors. When Tocqueville wrote about America, he was heavily influenced by the current situation and recent experiences of his own country. In the 1830s, no place in the world had suffered more from the excesses of democracy. France’s own revolution had been followed by a quarter-century of turmoil ending in a devastating national defeat with Napoleon’s fall in 1815.
Tocqueville decided to make his famous visit to America when the conservative Bourbon monarchy he served was overthrown in 1830 by a regime oriented toward middle class demands. This was precisely the kind of regime which anti-Americans identified negatively with the United States. Unhappy with the transition, Tocqueville looked for a way to get out of Paris for a while, nominally to study the American prison system for the French Ministry of Justice. Instead, he produced his two-volume Democracy in America, published in 1834 and 1840.
While Tocqueville’s praise of the United States is well-known to Americans, rarely noted is the fact that he shared most of the contemporary European criticisms of its state and society. He wrote:
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise with discretion….The main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as it is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at…the inadequate securities which one find there against tyranny.”
Yet Tocqueville’s words seem to relate more to the French revolution’s reign of terror, the guillotine, and Napoleon than to the rule of Washington, Jefferson and Madison. But what the author has in mind is not so much dictatorship from above but tyranny arising from below, by public opinion and such institutions as elected legislatures or juries drawn from common citizens. America’s rulers, he complains, are only passive tools of the masses. Writing at a time when autocracy was ascendant in much of Europe, with rampant censorship and repression, he concludes, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion.” So great is this majority tyranny that “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” The power of the majority “is so absolute and so irresistible” that dissent from it would bring ruin. Thus, no one dares to voice his own view.
He writes that in the United States, “The power of the majority [far] surpasses all the powers with which we are acquainted in Europe.” In Europe, opposition views circulate in secret. But in America, he explains, discussion is open only until the majority decides and once that happens, “Everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.” This type of repression explains why America stifles literary genius. In effect, he makes the United States sound as if it practices the “democratic centralism” which was later a principle of Communist parties in which discussion is only permitted before the party line is set..
In a remarkable passage, Tocqueville foresees the type of “repressive tolerance” critique that would characterize the European post-Marxist left’s critique of the United States. By instituting democracy and satisfying peoples’ needs, he seems to say, America has created a terrible society because it undermines the desire to revolt against it:
“The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but there is no public organ of infidelity. Attempts have been made by some governments to protect morality by prohibiting licentious books. In the United States no one is punished for this sort of books, but no one is induced to write them; not because all the citizens are immaculate in conduct, but because the majority of the community is decent and orderly.”
If Tocqueville had been a romantic, he might have attributed this problem to the absence of spirit that would give rise to poetry and philosophy or at least have pointed to the weakness of an intellectual class in providing guidance and high culture. As a conservative, though, he concludes that the proper element missing in the society is the absence of guidance by an aristocratic class secure in its wealth and values.
As a result, Tocqueville is sure that pragmatism must lead to a mindless materialism. Americans, he writes, are tormented by a vague dread “lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to” their own welfare. The American “clings to his world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.”
While Tocqueville was a better reporter of what he saw than most of the other visiting writers, he shared the agenda of most to prove beyond any doubt that democracy was a bad system which should not be imitated by France or Europe in general. Virtually identical sentiments also dominated the British elite’s perspective on the United States. It had watched with horror events in France and engaged in an all-out war to defeat the revolutionary regime there in addition to fighting two wars with the United States. Following the victory over Napoleon in 1815 came several decades of internal British struggles between reformers demanding more democracy and Tories fighting against change.
British conservatives focused on the same points as their French counterparts but with their own national flavor. G.D, Warburton took a vacation to New England in 1844 and concluded, “The Constitution was the work of madmen and meant the reign of the “the oracle of the pot-house and the ignorant swine-herd of the backwoods.”
One simple factor among the British to believe the American experiment had to be flawed was the fact that the colonists had rebelled against the mother country and then established a very different kind of society. And anything different from Britain, in British eyes—or more broadly anything different from Europe in European eyes—had to be inferior. Edward Wakefield, an influential writer—one of his books was entitled the Art of Colonization–in the 1830s and 1840s saw the problem as a failure to transfer to America the British social structure. Unchecked access to the frontier had created people who were too isolated and independent, bereft of the beneficial presence of aristocrats and gentleman capitalists.
His critique of the Americans—whom he derided as a “new people”–encapsulated practically every contemporary critique of America and foreshadowed those that would last down the decades to our time. They increased in number but made “no progress in the art of living.” In terms of wealth, knowledge, skill, taste, and civilization in general they had “degenerated from their [British] ancestors.” They lacked education, moved around too much, did not acquire a great enough wealth to be an elite (except the slave owners), were too violent, vain, obstinate, intolerant, and aggressive. Their notion of equality was too extreme and against nature, favoring the vile over the noble. In short, they were “a people who become rotten before they are ripe.”
Ironically, Wakefield came from a radical Quaker family but as so often happened, anti-Americanism blended radicalism and conservativism. As one historian characterizes his thought, Wakefield viewed the proper colonial community as harkening “back to a legendary past, to the squire surrounded by his contented, cap-tipping yokels, in the good old days before industrialism and new ideas had upset the rural harmony.”
Equally blunt was Frederick Marryat who was a government official, as well as a former naval officer and author of popular sea tales. Marryat’s agenda was to prove democracy dangerous, or at least what he considered to be the excessive democracy ruining the United States.
Both Tocqueville and Marryat made their visits at a time when populism was at one of its highest points in U.S. history. The defeat of the austere President John Quincy Adams, about the closest thing to an American aristocrat, by Andrew Jackson in 1828 ushered in a period in which frontier regions held more influence and American culture became self-consciously more mass-oriented. It was an era certain to feed Europeans’ worst fears, though they might well have reached the same conclusions anyway.
At the age of forty-five, in 1837, Marryat made a grand tour of America and produced a popular book about his travels. He concluded, “With all its imperfections, democracy is the form of government best suited to the present condition of America.” Given Marryat’s views, this was apparently not intended as a compliment.
Compared to Tocqueville’s literary elegance, however, Marryat was quite blunt. Political equality, he wrote, made “the scum… uppermost, and they do not see below it. The prudent, the enlightened, the wise, and the good, have all retired into the shade, preferring to pass a life of quiet retirement, rather than submit to the insolence and dictation of a mob.”
He concluded that the United States “has proven to the world that, with every advantage on her side, the attempt at a republic has been a miserable failure and that the time is not yet come when mankind can govern themselves. Will it ever come? In my opinion, never.” He added, “No people have as yet been sufficiently enlightened to govern themselves.”
Marryat’s political prejudices were reinforced by events In 1837, a rebellion against British rule broke out in Canada and Americans sympathized with it. The media whipped up anti-British sentiment and the U.S. government let anti-British insurgents operate from American territory in New York state until a group of British loyalists crossed the border and destroyed their base. Marryat, at that moment visiting Toronto, attended a dinner honoring the raiders and toasted them. When news of this behavior reached the United States, he was denounced in the press and burned in effigy.
As one might expect, this did not make Marryat fond of the American press, which he considered “licentious to the highest possible degree.” As a result, he wrote, mutual defamation was a pervasive disease in America and everyone was “suspicious and cautious of his neighbor.” The real cause of this internecine warfare was each citizen’s relentless effort to maintain equality by pulling everyone down to his own level.
Yet this kind of rot was said to pervade all aspects of American life. Giving the common people education, for example, and teaching them to read and write merely corrupted “those who might have been more virtuous and happy in their ignorance” Parents, Marryat wrote. did not control their children, who learned only what they wanted from a school curriculum that was largely republican propaganda teaching students to hate monarchies and glorify revolution. At any rate, the schooling for the elite was inferior to Europe’s and there were few who could be called “a very highly educated man.”
Most European observers agreed with Marryat’s conclusion that, at best, American society was “a chaotic mass” with little that was “valuable or interesting.” Jacquemont’s assessment of Americans was: “Disgusting, disgusting! It is shameful to speak of them: these animals are below criticism….No population is as anti-picturesque….[The United States is a] free and boring country.”
It was hardly surprising, then, that Europeans thought that bad taste was king in America. Du Lac reported that liberalism was the enemy of politeness, for if everyone was equal no one would give deference to others. On the contrary, they would be obnoxious in asserting their rights. In theatres, men kept their hats on, smoked smelly cigars and did not give up their seats to ladies who, for their part, were pretty enough at first but lost their teeth by the age of 18, their looks by age 20, and were constantly wiping their noses
Talleyrand spoke of Americans as clumsy parvenus who wore hats “that a European peasant would not be caught dead in.” Unsurprisingly, the Frenchman found the cuisine dreadful. It was a country of “32 religions and only one dish…and even that [is] inedible.”
Yet while America was seen as banal, passionless, and ruled by conformity, it was simultaneously—and not without reason—portrayed as an extraordinarily hot-headed and violent place. Before the cowboys existed as a stereotype, Americans were compared to the “Indians” in this respect. By 1785 a British dictionary was defining the word “gouge” as “to squeeze out a man’s eye with the thumb, a cruel practice used by the Bostonians in America.” Certainly, there was great lawlessness, especially on the frontier. European visitors were able to catalogue a wide variety of murders, shootings, knifings, duels, and lynching. This problem, too, was ascribed to democracy. In Marryat’s words, “Dueling always has been and always will be, one of the evils of democracy.” This was a strange distortion since that practice had long been a mainstay of European aristocrats. Still, the idea of Americans as excessively and irrationally violent, people would become another of the enduring European stereotypes.
As the first half of the nineteenth century went by, British visitors became more outspokenly critical of slavery. But the personal habit that seemed to symbolize everything Europeans disliked about America was tobacco-chewing. Alexander Mackay, a British journalist who wrote a travel book in 1849, described a veritable flood of tobacco juice squirting throughout railroad cars. Passengers spit between Mackay’s feet and over his shoulders. One even took a piece from his mouth and drew pictures on a window with it.
The German poet Heine, who never visited the United States, wrote a poem about this vice in 1851:
“I have sometimes thought to sail
To America the free
To that Freedom Stable where
All the boors live equally.
But I fear a land where men
Chew tobacco in platoons,
There’s no king among the pins,
And they spit without spittoons.
“I hardly know of any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant remorseless spitting of Americans,” said Frances Trollope, who added that this habit had made the lips of male Americans “almost uniformly thin and compressed.”
Trollope might have been the single most influential person shaping European perceptions of America in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Her book Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832, enjoyed a phenomenal success and was translated into several languages. Within a few years, people were speaking of “to trollopise,” meaning to criticize the Americans. To sit “legs a la trollope” referred to that rude allegedly American habit of putting one’s feet on the table and slouching back in a chair.
So much did she dislike the United States that the experience of visiting there transformed her from an optimistic liberal advocate for democracy to a reactionary opponent of change. A summary of her impressions may be gleaned by her conclusion that the main reason to visit America is “that we shall feel the more contented with our own country.” In retaliation, on display in New York was set up a waxwork of the author in the shape of a goblin.
Trollope never set out to play such a historic role. In 1827 she arrived in Cincinnati with three small children, sent by her eccentric husband to open a department store there. The store went bankrupt and Trollope was stranded with her ill offspring. Desperate for money, she hit on the novel idea of writing a best-seller. Americans criticized her book but bought it any way. Even British liberals condemned it as an exaggerated indictment. Still, it proved a most persuasive one.
The focus of her attack was America’s ascetic and cultural failing. Like other Europeans before her, she disliked American nature and people for being too wild compared to the highly domesticated ideal expressed in the British garden. This simile was extended to American behavior which she saw as equally untamed. Asked the greatest difference between England and the United States, Trollope pointed to the latter’s “want of refinement.” No one had an interest in high culture. In America, she explained, “that polish which removes the coarser and rougher parts of our nature is unknown and undreamed of.”
People ate too fast, had bad table manners, spoke poor English, talked too much about politics and religion (subjects not appropriate for public conversation), and rode roughshod over personal privacy. American gregariousness grated on British sensibilities. When she wanted to take her meals at a Memphis hotel in a private room rather than with the rest of the guests, the landlady became angry. In Cincinnati, a hotelkeeper demanded that she drink her tea with the other guests or leave. People tried to engage her in conversation when she wanted to be alone. She even complained that Americans, at least white ones, could not sing a song in tune. Women walked badly and their clothes, except in Philadelphia, were in terrible taste.
In this vein, a leading British journalist, G.S. Venables wrote in November 1866: “Perhaps an American England may produce a higher average of happiness than the existing system, but it would not be a country for a gentleman, and I for one would be quite a stranger in it.” The essayist Matthew Arnold pointed out that in Europe one was assigned a place in society at birth while in the United States one must create it. For those already at the top of society—in terms of privilege, power, or prestige—this was a frightening thought.
Always, the subtext was the ruinous nature of the American belief in equality, ranging from the low character of American political leaders to the difficulty of finding proper servants among such people. Indeed, Trollope wrote, “If refinement once creeps in among them, if they once learn to cling to the graces, the honors, the chivalry of life, then we shall say farewell to American equality, and welcome to European fellowship one of the finest countries on earth.”
This was a remarkable revelation of a major anti-American theme. Any positive effect of equality was more than cancelled out by the fact that it would undermine the social position of those shaping Europe’s interpretation of America. The success of America and its imitation by their own countries would undermine—or at least they thought it would—their personal interests. In short, anti-Americanism was a class interest, not of the masses—who were the ones most likely to emigrate—but of the elite.
Another negative consequence of America’s emphasis on freedom and equality was said to be an excessively elevated status for women and children. This criticism was also intended to prove that the United States had rejected the natural order of society. Schopenhauer’s list of American sins included a “foolish adoration of women.” Like others, the Frenchmen Mederic Louis Elie Moreau Saint-Mery, a Frenchman who owned a bookstore in Philadelphia in the 1790s, claimed that American women soon lost their beauty (due to the terrible climate) and never found good taste. He also thought their breasts excessively small. But most importantly, he and other Europeans thought they were not well-behaved, obedient, or affectionate.
America was sarcastically nicknamed in some European writings as a “paradise for women.” In a classical statement of the German writer F.R. Eylert:
“Woman! Do you want to see yourself restored to your aboriginal place of honor with your husband in the house as your slave and at your side in society? Do you want him to dance to your tune and early in the morning rush to buy meat, butter, vegetables and eggs, while you lie comfortably in bed and devote yourself to sweet morning dreams?…If you want to experience the full blessings of a pampered existence, then go to America, become naturalized, purchase an American husband, and you are emancipated….
The underlying problem in this allegedly exalted status was that equality had gone too far, even in an age when no woman could vote. A working-class Scotsman, James D. Burns, who visited the United States during the Civil War, in his book about the experience recorded, “In America, female notions of equality and personal independence have to a great extent reversed the old order of things in the relation of the sexes….The woman has made up her mind not to be bossed by her husband, which means she will do as she likes irrespective of his will….” This damaged marriage and led to more frequent divorces.
A German contemporary wrote of the “typical” American woman: “She always carried books, brochures, and newspapers on her memorandum book and pencil, with which to copy down fragments from books and conversations. Full of claims to nobility, she nevertheless played the part of an avowed republican. She combined information with misinformation, common sense with transcendental nonsense…one of those educated women who because of pretensions to equality with men have lost all the charm and advantages of their sex.”
Already, when Hollywood was still a howling wilderness, Americans were also said to be juvenile and obsessed with being youthful. The United States, as an immature society rejecting tradition, was a veritable never-land of Peter Pans determined to stay young forever. “In America,” said one wit, “the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.” This was precisely what Europeans accused America of trying to do to them. As always, Oscar Wilde put it best and briefest: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for 300 years.”
Given the exalted status of children attributed to American society, one could hardly blame Americans for wanting to stay young. According to James F. Muirhead, a British editor of guidebooks to the United States, children there, “Learn to throw off the restraints of parental authority” since they feel, according to the national credo they are “equal to everyone.” I do not know of any task more difficult than for a father to keep his children well in hand.”
“Nowhere is the child so constantly in evidence; nowhere are his wishes so carefully consulted; nowhere is he allowed to make his mark so strongly on society in general….The small American…interrupts the conversation of his elders, he has a voice in every matter, he eats and drinks what seems good to him, he (or at any rate she) wears finger-rings of price, he has no shyness or even modesty.”
Anthony Trollope, who as an adult wrote a book about the place where he spent time as a child with his mother, Frances Trollope, thought American babies, “Eat and drink just as they please; they are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed and kept in the background as children are kept with us, and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable….Can it be, I wonder, that the children are happier when they are made to obey orders.” While Marryat insisted “there is little or no parental control,” adding:
Imagine a child of three years old in England behaving thus:
`Johnny, my dear, come here,” says his mama
`I won’t,’ cries Johnny.
`You must, my love, you are all wet, and you’ll catch cold.’
`I won’t,’ replies Johnny.” And so forth.
`A sturdy republican, sir,’ says his father to me, smiling at the boy’s resolute disobedience.
Given the fact that everyone in America was criticized for their spirit of equality, it is not surprising that later criticism would often come down to sneering at an insufficient elitism, an excessive emphasis on the lower common denominator, in the United States. Even when those complaints came from leftist intellectuals who claimed to revere equality, the old aristocratic disdain for the masses was often barely concealed beneath the supposed love of all humanity. Naturally, the peasants and workers who flocked from Europe to America as immigrants did not share this attitude.
Moreover, the European visitors’ view that materialism and democracy blocked the creation of a serious culture in the United States was already being disproven. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Alan Poe, the Hudson River school of painting, and many others were doing important and original work. As in politics, a viable mass-oriented alternative to Europe’s official aristocratic culture was possible.
Even the kindly British novelist Charles Dickens, least snobbish of his nation and defender of the downtrodden in his great novels, could not quite shake himself loose from European disdain. Dickens had some positive things to say about the United States in a book about his 1842 journey there, finding Americans “by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable and affectionate,” He also had good personal reasons for turning against America after being cheated by speculators in a canal company fraud and publishers who stole his writings and never paid him royalties.
Nevertheless, his conclusion was that while the British suffer from being self-absorbed, inner-oriented characters, Americans are colorless because they are obsessed what their fellows think of them, a result of that dreaded equality which makes them want to be like everyone else. And at times even Dickens was overcome by the American disease which so often affected European travelers. Its main symptom was an angry feverish hatred which made otherwise sane people almost froth at the mouth.
Traveling from Cincinnati downstream to Cairo, Illinois, he wrote of
“The hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.”
Ironically, this was the very material that Mark Twain would render so unforgettably as a writer exemplifying a distinctly American world view. At any rate, in Dickens’ rendition, the United States was a land of sleazy business ethics, rampant lawlessness and violence, crass materialism, insufferable and undereducated boors, and gluttony. It is a list quite familiar a century later. Instead of an eagle as its national symbol, Dickens proposes choosing a more appropriate animal for America’s emblem: A bat “for its short-sightedness, [a rooster] for its bragging,” a magpie “for its [dis]honesty,” a peacock “for its vanity,” or an ostrich for its desire to avoid reality.
Dickens’ novel, Martin Chuzzlewit published in 1866 is certainly the funniest nineteenth-century anti-American satire. His poor hero, who makes the mistake of immigrating to America, suffers the entire repertoire of American ills, ranging from terrible climate to cultural barbarism to predatory swindlers who sell him land in a malaria-infested frontier town where he becomes seriously ill.
When Martin is invited to dinner, he hears a bell “ringing violently” and is convinced the house is afire as a series of agitated gentlemen rush in. The alarm turns out to be only the dinner bell. American gluttony was a favorite theme of nineteenth-century European writers, perhaps because the average American ate far better than his European counterpart. In the dining room, he sees:
“All the knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defense, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time tomorrow morning….”
And when he finally returns home, according to one of the book’s running jokes, every time the word “America” is mentioned he becomes ill.
Obviously, the reactions to America of each country’s nationals reflected the priorities and problems of their native lands. The British put a little more emphasis on excessive equality, the French on intellectual and cultural poverty, and the Germans spoke much of spiritual barrenness. Yet all these themes are found in the ideas of each of them. It is telling, too, how much of this criticism came out of a combination of aristocratic and romantic spirit, of leftist and rightist ideas intertwined.
Both aristocrats and romantics, conservatives and radicals, looked down on a middle class republic that was certainly not their idea of utopia. Conservative Germans, who had a horror of republicanism, easily classified America as unpalatable. But so did German romantics who had an equal horror of materialism and the masses.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, European anti-Americans concluded that the United States was to be ridiculed not feared. Its ludicrous political system was a clear failure and might well collapse of its own weight. If the United States posed any threat it arose from bad example rather than global ambitions. The word “model” sneeringly appeared most often in anti-American literature to discredit the idea that this country might provide an example to emulate. This concept would later be expressed as the rejection of “Americanization.”
The second stage of anti-Americanism was to insist that the United States was a failure. But contrary to these predictions of early nineteenth century anti-Americans—who would see the Civil War as the embodiment of this expectation–the United States did not collapse. On the contrary, it grew steadily stronger and more visibly successful. Only when the American experiment had clearly worked–around the 1880s, when American industrialization began to lead the world, or after 1898, when the U.S. victory over Spain made it an incipient world power–was it no longer possible to insist that it had failed. But the anti-Americans would find the threat of American success to be an even more serious matter. And this would lead to the third stage of anti-Americanism.