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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #100: A Shopkeeper's Millennium

This Is Us

For the hundredth entry in this series, I'm sharing one of the most important books I've ever read. Johnson's volume is brief - under 150 pages excluding appendices - but is dense with important observations about how our modern American ethos and structure came to be. If the theory of our economy, society, and politics was promulgated by the founders, the praxis dates from the subsequent generation in the 1815-1835 era. It was in this time that America emerged as unapologetically capitalist, fervently evangelical, and increasingly socially rigid.

The prime movers of these durably American values were the commercial (or market) revolution and the Second Great Awakening. These cannot be considered separately. On one hand, the nation's economy moved swiftly away from its agrarian base toward factory-based systems. Multiple laborers worked in a single facility manufacturing goods, under the supervision of a boss who was often not the owner, and did not share in the manual or skilled labor. Divisions grew between the working class, the management class, and the ownership class. At the same time there was rapid urbanization to service these centrally located factories, and working-class neighborhoods sprouted to house them. Many of these ghettoes were self-segregated by ethnicity, and many were populated by new immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were increasingly Catholic, Irish, Italian, or Slavic. The social compact that had existed for centuries began to break down. The farmer who hired a hand, worked beside him in the field and shared in prosperity and privation was becoming an anachronism, replaced by the shift boss and the time clock, with a distant and morally superior capitalist owner. Feudalism had come to America, adding wage slavery in the North to true slavery in the South.

These economic changes ran congruent to and in synchronic feedback with social changes. The behavior of laborers had once been restricted by living alongside the parental presence of the farmer, all levels of labor living together in an extended family compound. There was little opportunity for excessive drinking, sexual adventurism, or petty larceny. Urbanism and the factory system changed this, as supervisors and workers no longer broke bread at the same table or spent hours together in the field. A bourgeoisie class emerged, of professionals and tradesmen and middle managers, and their families who rarely interacted socially with members of the working class. A working class, remember, that was growing rapidly more ethnic and Catholic. As this middle class grew more affluent, leisure time began to accrue for the wives and mothers. Much of this leisure time was devoted to the growing collective desire to improve the world (more on that in a moment). The reformist movements of the 19th century emerged, from abolitionism to temperance to women’s suffrage. Some of this came from relatively noble or socially aware origins. Some came from darker, more classist and racist impulses. Temperance, for example, arose from the pearl-clutching reaction of middle class white women observing hard-drinking eastern Europeans carousing in the streets (and getting uppity with their betters).

Into this dynamic socioeconomic cauldron was poured the Second Great Awakening, an explosive movement of religious fervor in New York and New England (the same places the market revolution was being felt most keenly). Mass revivals drew thousands to churches and tents, where enthusiastic professions of piety and demonstrations of faith healing were abetted by charismatic preachers like Charles Finney. Young women had fits in the aisles and children spoke in tongues. This was evangelical Protestantism, waging war against worldly sin and preaching mass conversion. Among the most rabidly zealous were the members of the new middle class, uncomfortable with the social changes described above (of which they had been the lead authors). Profit-driven husbands who had abandoned the formerly implied moral stewardship of their underlings delegated that role (consciously or not) to their wives, feeding into the reform movements that sought to bring about Christ’s millennium on Earth through good works and human perfectibility. The pews replaced the dinner table as the venue for controlling the working class.

This discussion boils down the complicated interplay of vectors into a simple narrative, which is a dangerous exercise for a historian. It was naturally more complex and varied, with outliers and countervailing movements. But the general essence of American life was ineradicably established. This was when we adopted unfettered capitalism, a judgmental and evangelical Protestantism, and a striated society as indelible aspects of the American ethos. They are more fundamental and insidious today than ever.

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