THE UTILITY OF 1876

By Leslie H. Fishel, Jr.

Volume I No. 3

1876 probably has as little claim to distinction as 1856 or 1886, except for the fact that it was a centennial year. As the midpoint between the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s Bicentennial, it is a convenient base from which to look at the art of history and American Studies. A fragmentary survey suggests a pattern of déjà vu, the familiar issues, familiarly attacked and defended. In their search for the new and the different, scholars tend to overlook the familiar, or dismiss it as accidental or simplistic. But issues, like weeds, crop up again and again.

1876, for example, was a year in which the reduction of the armed forces received some attention. From the hero of the March to the Sea came words with which, an editor concluded, “every true-hearted American will sympathize.” General William Tecumseh Sherman invoked the memory of another general, a century earlier, when he told a New England audience that “I hope this great nation will not forget the lesson of Washington, and be prepared for danger when it comes, and keep not only the instruments of war but the knowledge of war.1 One hundred years later, as the debate on arms reduction rages, the general’s advice continues to be persistently proposed by generals and their proponents.

1876 was a year in which a postal rate increase on third-class mail (affecting newspapers and magazines) was quickly rescinded in the face of virulent opposition from the press. The Postmaster General, Harper’s Weekly explained. “has no other purpose, than the very proper one of reducing, so far as practicable, the annual deficit of his department without laying a higher tax on the dissemination of intelligence.” So far so good, and the nation’s press was exonerated from a self-serving position by this guileless assertion. But the journal went on to lament about the rising deficit and the promise not to inhibit the dissemination of intelligence: “Precisely how this is to be done is a question which cannot be answered off hand.”2  One hundred years is not usually described as an “off hand” period of time, yet the issue of rising postal deficits continues to confront disseminators of intelligence, both private and public.

If you thought the equality of women is merely a historical, hare-brained scheme, suitable for eccentric reformers, listen to a columnist for the Atlantic Monthly in 1876 urge greater opportunity for women in higher education in terms of job opportunities, sexism and financial aid:”…until the future possibilities of life set the same premium upon college education for women which they do now for men, it is vain to expect that women in great numbers will have the firmness and the patience to overcome hindrances, far greater than for men, which lie in their way.” The columnist urges special scholarships for able women.3  Title IX, it would seem, did not emerge, fully grown, from Betty Friedan’s forehead.

The example of issues and social phenomena recurring after a century are numerous enough to give pause. Do you remember that Charles Francis Adams argued for a centralized railroad system in 1876, before the word Amtrak was even a twinkle in legislative eyes?4   Do you recall the wave of religious revivals which swept college campuses like Princeton, Amherst, and Lafayette, involving students and faculty, one hundred years before these and hundreds of other institutions of higher learning began to cope with born-again Christians meeting in upper rooms?5  And just as we have witnessed the campaign to endorse or excise prayer in the public schools or federal funds for church-related colleges, so did the Grant administration propose a constitutional amendment to prohibit the teaching and practice of religion in the public school system.6 Even advertising by innuendo can trace its roots back; one modest advertisement which repeatedly appeared in Harper’s Weeklyin 1876 warned against “Impure Breath” and counseled the use of a dentifrice.7

Most assuredly, we are more comfortable with the differences between 1876 and 1976. One no longer hears the supreme self-confidence expressed by a New York minister in the earlier year as he announced a hymn for his congregation to sing: “You may omit the fourth verse,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s true.”8  And one can find solace in technological progress over ten decades. In 1876, when solar energy was still the promise of the future, one report told of a solar energy generator which had “raised 15 liters of water to steam in an hour, and the steam was made available in driving a small steam engine.” 9 Fifteen liters of water is approximately 10% of the capacity of the average modern bathtub. Our engineers can do considerably better than that today, though solar energy is still a promise of the future.

What this catalogue of the familiar, with some differentiations, emphasizes is the appeal which history and American Studies have to the student and to the layperson. There is another essential function of these disciplines which needs revitalization. History which is familiar, history as knowledge, as drama, as a source of national pride all have a sense of charisma, but not much utility. History and American Studies as a tool in clarifying current problems has purpose and meaning. By way of example, look at some of the nation’s failures, instances in which major problems have continued to plague us, resisting efforts of resolution and amelioration at all levels. These examples, too, use 1876 as a constant base, and they should suggest that intensive study, using the skills of the disciplines of history and American Studies, will assist in developing data, methods and outlooks which may lead to their evolving resolution. This is history as function.

Today’s cities are a blemish on the national landscape. Whatever excitement they hold for athletic fans, cultural devotees and business entrepreneurs, they are also swamps of poverty, unemployment, racial tension and crime. One hundred years ago, there were a few voices crying in the wilderness. “A modern city will not build itself,” one journalist warned in 1857. “Somebody must build it.” This demands, he added, more planning and a larger public spirit than it required to extemporize a nation a century ago.”10  Yet cities were built, ex tempore, without planning or a larger public spirit. If we are to medicate the blemish and drain the urban mire, we need to know more about how cities developed, how plans were constructed and aborted, how laws aided and abetted chaotic growth, how money was used and abused in the growth process, and responses to a multitude of other similar questions. Such responses alone will not bring out the best that is in urban development, but they will uncover clues for contemporary methods, adaptable to the special circumstances of modern cities.

In another category of failure, we Americans have long prided ourselves on our ability to do careful workmanship. Yet as we turn out hundreds of units per second, the substance of too many contemporary consumer complaints is built-in obsolescence, shoddy workmanship. Whether we buy a car or a house or a child’s toy, we run the risk of having it malfunction because of careless manufacture. One hundred years ago, after a damaging fire in New York City, Harper’s Weekly observed that “amidst our centennial congratulations, we must not forget that we are still content with an immense proportion of shoddy in every department and activity…”11 Perhaps the shoddy goes back to the caveman, and perhaps we as a nation are doomed to mediocrity in mass tastes, mass production and mass media, but it seems too easy to blame human genes or human mass for the shoddy in our society. We need to discover where we have failed in our efforts to control the shoddy and the makeshift. How can we protect our citizenry from this century from this century-old plague? Has education turned its back? Have laws failed in the past because of imprecision, judicial interpretation or lack of enforcement? Have consumer reactions failed for lack of organization, interest, or money? Has industry failed because of lack of skills, administrative ineptitude or plain greed? These and other questions deserve attention if only to determine whether the streak of shoddiness in American culture is ineradicable.

One final example. The general public looks back to the good old days, not because they were better or more comfortable but because, from the vantage point of the present, the past looks a little more humane. The violence is subdued in print and picture. The harshness, say, of slavery is muted and the hurts and slights of interpersonal relationships forgotten or ignored. From that mellowed and subjective perspective, the old days were pretty good indeed. Yet the facts contradict the myth. “Man butters the bread of life from his heart,” John Burroughs wrote in the baroque style of 1876, “but in this country the slice has been so large and the unctuous hearts so few, that our bread is yet unbuttered.” We lack, he said, “human qualities.”12 Nor was Burroughs alone in his evaluation. An editor of the same journal, in the same month, put the case more simply:

In one hundred years of intense industry and marvelous development, we have grown from a few feeble colonies to a powerful nation of more than forty millions of people. We have been so busy that we never have been able to look one another in the face, except during four terrible years of civil war.13

In those unhurried, pastoral days of 1876 citizens were so busy they could not look one another in the face. How like today!

The impersonality of today’s complex society is a cross which all of us must bear with apprehension. The student of American Studies or American history might be challenged to discover why those friendly Americans of yesterday are really not very friendly at all. What happened to the concept of the dignity of person? Its disappearance has historical roots; if it is ever to reappear, those roots need to be examined, dissected, and interpreted.

There is a lesson or two to be extracted from this examination of the familiar, the functional and the failures – lessons which strike close to the heart of public and scholarly interpretations of history, We have been brought up to believe that progress is our most significant characteristic. Chicago celebrated “A Century of Progress” in 1933; a major manufacturing firm used to advertise that”progress is our most important product.” The general public, drawing direction from historical scholars and teachers, tends to think that we are “better off” than our forebears, that we have moved up the ladder of civilization, that as a nation we personify progress.

The evidence, I believe, is to the contrary. Howard Warshaw observed a few years ago that “the art of the cave painters was good and we haven’t really done better since.”14 Progress is a yardstick we can do without in historical interpretations. Our colonial and revolutionary forebears and their successors of 1976 politicked  and prayed, wrestled and wrangled with issues, demeaned and discriminated against one another, and made love and war with consummate artistry – and we have not really done any better since.

If we do not make progress – measureable, documented progress – what do we make? We make the best of every situation. We strive for the most just, the most equitable and the most humane solutions to our human problems that we can possibly devise. We should not care a particle about whether the results are progress or not. What we can care a great deal about, however, is whether we are reasonably certain of what has happened before, so that we do not attempt simple solutions to problems which have a hoary and hairy history. Where progress may distort or blur a vision of history, the use of historical evidence and example in proper perspective will change our perceptions of current problems, and may provide the clarity which will lead to resolution.

The events of a century ago, then, can serve as a convenient base from which to look at the scholarly art of history and American Studies. In that centennial year thoughtful men and women were imbued with a sense of progress, and they viewed progress as the essential theme in the narrative of the nation. One hundred years later, it is time for us to think in other terms, and to pursue our teaching and learning within another framework. The study of American history is more important today for providing direction and hope than it is for instilling a sense of apparent progress.

American Studies and American history have this function to demonstrate the variety of directions which this nation has taken, and to suggest new and vital directions for the nation to take. To do this, these disciplines should capture the fascination of history and American culture which the essays in this journal document. These provide exemplary evidence of the fascination of life and living in 1876. More than this, the two disciplines can highlight the familiar – those many issues and instances which crop up again and again in history. It is the familiar which will rekindle that lost sense of importance which history once had.

In addition to the fascination and familiarity of the past, scholars in history and American Studies should examine the nation’s failures, not to glorify them, but to learn from them. We are a nation that has not lived up to its pronouncements or its potential. We need scholars to analyze these gaps and to tell us why; their answers will be useful to those who would act to create a more perfect union.

If scholars in American history and American Studies can reassert the functional character of their teaching and research, by exposing its fascination, emphasizing the familiar and exploring the failures of the past, the result will be a sense of direction, with hope, and the nation will learn from its past, and prosper.    

 

Endnotes

1 Harper’s Weekly, February 12, 1876, p. 123.

2 Ibid. For a contemporary howl of protest against the Postal Service’s effort to reduce its operating deficit by an action which would, in effect, raise the rates for newspapers, magazines, and books, see the editorial in the New York Times, January 30, 1977, Section IV, 16.

3 “Education,” Atlantic Monthly, XXXVIII (October 1876), 384.

4 Charles Francis Adams, Jr., “The State and the Railroads,” Pt. III, Atlantic Monthly, XXXVIII (July 1876), 72-85.

5 Harper’s Weekly, March 18, 1876, p. 231; April 1, 15, 29, 1876 pp. 267, 311, 347.

6 Ibid., January 15m 1876, pp. 46-47.

7 For example, Harper’s Weekly, July 8, 1876, p . 559.

8 Ibid., June 3rd, 1876, p. 447

9 “The World’s Work – Solar Engine,” Scribner’s Monthly, XI (February 1876), 594-595.

10 Golden Age (New York) June 5, 1875.

11 Harper’s Weekly, February 26, 1876, p. 163

12 John Burroughs “House-Building,” Scribner’s Monthly, XI (January 1876), 433.

13 Scribner’s Monthly, XI (January 1876), 433

14 The Center Magazine, II (March 1969), 52.