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Vanguard Nation

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Robert says that the “”best” people–the intellectual cutting edge–had abandoned freedom and democracy well before manhood sufferage and commercial freedom were widely accepted.”

I’ve thought about this for a minute or two, and I think it’s largely wrong, and for two reasons.

One is the simple fact that in any society in which he and I  have lived, the “best” people have never included the intellectual vanguard in any sense.  The Anglophone nations are notorious for being determinedly middlebrow, dedicated to sport and more than faintly anti-intellectual.  It was one thing to go to Oxford.  It was another to actually study while you were there. Boston made fun of its bluestockings.  It valorized its merchant bankers. 

If you want your daughter to come out at a really exclusive presentation ball, you’d be better served learning to ride to hounds and ski impressively than in reading anything at all.   As any student at a first-rate prep school can tell you, there are two kinds of people who go to such places–the smart ones, and the rich ones.

But the more important point is that this is not the trajectory that American intellectual history followed.  The  Transcendentalists may have given up on  Reason–and common sense, too, in some cases–but in no sense had they given up on democracy, or on “commercial liberty,” or on liberty of any kind.

And I’m not sure that the Romantics in Europe gave up on those things to begin with.  I tend to doubt that they ever had them.  European culturs are essentially monarchical.  They’re monarchical now as much as they were then, although their rhetoric is different.  England came closest to a democratic tradition, but it was always a truncated one. 

What’s more, the common assumptions of British social life–note, social, not intellectual–were transmitted to this country by virtue of the fact that it was emigrants from Britain who founded it, and although they included a nominal respect for “education,” they were mostly about birth and breeding and the ways in which such things would “tell,” and class would be inescapable.

Whatever the Romantic movement was in  Europe, its American counterpart was, if anything, more committed to liberty and democracy than the general public, whatever its class.   It was the Transcendentalists who championed universal manhood suffrage, not the Boston merchant class or the working class that took its wages.  

And many of these people put their lives and fortunes on the line to do it, making their homes stops on the Underground Railroad, for instance, when being caught at it would not only get you generally arrested, but subject you to mob attacks by the populace at large.

And some of them even tried to live their theories in a real life that wasn’t very forgiving of them–inviting Frederick Douglas to dine, for instance, when doing so often meant having half your guests walk out the door when they discovered they’d be sitting at table with “monkeys.”

In an era when fortune and livelihood often depended on connections, this kind of thing could get you into serious financial difficulty.

For better or worse, anti-democratic intellectualism in the United States has largely been a foreign import, and the importation was from non-Anglophone countries, and it first arrived around (and usually after) the Civil War.   America’s first intellectuals were democrats to a man (and woman), in favor of ending slavery and of valorizing “good practical work,” even when they wer e incapable of understanding it.

The country would have been better off if it had been more in step with its intellectual elite–such as it was–in 1848, because they were the people who were insisting that slavery had to be ended, period.  They were also the great champions of universal free education.  Citizenship in a free republic required that every man learn to read and write, and every woman, too, so that she could bring up the next generation of patriots.

And that was another thing–these people were fiercely patriotic, and about as committed to the ideas of the Founding as fundamentalists are to scripture.  

If there’s a point in learning intellectual history, it’s that it makes it possible to see that not only is correlation not causation, but that it isn’t even always correlation.  At the time I’m speaking of, we were involved in the Mexican War, that ended up annexing much of what is now Texas.  Most of these people were as opposed to it as any anti-Vietnam protestor was to the war in Vietnam, but they managed to do it without excoriating soldiers and the military and without demoting the United States to the status of rogue nation or international embarrassment. 

The “best” people are never in favor of democracy, but the “best” people are never intellectuals, either.  In the US, they’re largely the descendants of the makers of the great fortunes of the Gilded Age.  In another fifty years or so, they’ll also be descendants of the makers of the great fortunes of our age.  They do not live democratically.  Their children do not go to public schools, and in fact are brought up to be as different from the children who do as it is possible to get.

When I was growing up, this included carefully inculcating an accent that most ordinary people would find grating as hell, but also in constructing a set of experiences that would be shared by nobody outside the circle:  “dancing classes” that were not about dancing but about proper manners at formal parties; “subscription dances” that staged just such formal parties (starting in junior high school); mass presentation balls for the college set.  And then there are things like the Knickerbocker Greys, a quasi-military marching society for boys, with uniforms and swords, invitation only, and money (if it’s the wrong kind of money) won’t get your son through the door. 

This set of experiences is so radically different from anything “most” Americans are used to–no proms, remember, no cheerleaders that anybody cares about,  “cool people” sports as tennis, squash, and skiing and the school may not even have a footall team–that the products of this sort of upbringing often find themselves incapable of communicating with their more conventionally raised classmates when they finally get to a college where they have to live with everybody else.

But they’re not intellectuals, elite or in the vanguard or anything else.

Written by janeh

April 13th, 2009 at 5:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Vanguard Nation'

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  1. I put “best” in quotation marks for a different reason. Money and social standing as “best” never occured to me. I was trying to indicate that I didn’t measure people by their ability to write a plausible-sounding political or philosophical tract, or even a novel. I assess the goodness of people by their conduct, not the agility of their minds, which are often put to very bad uses.

    But what I said was true. The West’s intellectual elite will turn against freedom and democracy before they are widely achieved. But as Jane says, that’s a generation later than the Transcendentalists. (I didn’t know we were still talking about them.) THEY rebel against reason and tradition. Disgruntlement with freedom and democracy comes after emancipation in the US, following mid-Century reforms of Parliament in Britain and after the end of serfdom in most of Europe. I think we got close enough for our intellectuals to see where we were headed, and it was a disappointment to them. But that’s an essay, not a blog comment.

    Incidentally, the Transcendentalists didn’t need to mock the soldiery of the Mexican War, because that was the default setting of the period. Grant describes coming back to his home town either just out of West Point or on leave half-way through–anyway, in uniform–to be greeted by a street urchin with the common cry of “‘Soldier, soldier, will you work?'”No Siree! I’ll sell my shirt first!'” This would have been no more than five years ahead of the war. And it was a war that Grant criticized as fiercely as Thoreau or Lincoln, but while he wore that despised uniform and the nation having decided on the war, he saw it as his duty to fight as well as he could.
    As Jane says, a point of view lost on Code Pink–and on Harvard University, come to that.

    Oh yes! Forget “most of what is now Texas.” Compare the pre-war Mexican notion of the border with the Treaty of Guadaloupe-Hidalgo, and you’re talking ALL of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, arguably Washington and Oregon, and portions of several other states. Had Mexico won, they were talking of rolling the United States back to the Mississippi. The armies were small, but the stakes were very high indeed.


    13 Apr 09 at 4:07 pm

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