When Leftists Liked America
Children of progressive parents were brought up to admire America. There is a revealing sentence in the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, born in 1806. Describing how his father, James Mill, a radical who worked at India House, made him, when he was eight, read through the volume of theAnnual Register, Mill wrote: “When I came to the American War, I took my part, like a child as I was (until set right by my father) on the wrong side, because it was called the English side.”
Less politically committed visitors from Britain viewed the egalitarianism they found in America with mixed feelings. What they all noticed was the universal practice of shaking hands. In Britain handshaking was a sign of close friendship or kindly condescension… But in America, the alternative, a mere bow, was regarded as anti-republican and pro-King. Captain Marryat, of the Royal Navy, who had been so worried about losing his badly crewed frigate during the war and who returned to America in more peaceful times to write a book about it, found he had to “go on shaking hands here, there and everywhere, and with everybody.” The practice blurred social distinctions: it was “impossible to know who is who.”
A British lady-visitor, Mrs. Basil Hall, also found the handshaking odd and everywhere missed the constant deference which the British took for granted. At the inns there was just, she wrote, “unbending, frigid heartlessness.” Servants, when they existed at all, were insubordinate and not well trained. They simply could not provide the service the traveling British expected in hotels. There was no soap in the bedrooms, and a guest who asked for it was likely to receive a pert answer.
Mrs. Hall, and many other visitors, likewise deplored the American habit of smoking cigars and chewing tobacco – a habit by no means confined to men – wherever they pleased, even in public buildings and churches. She found the floor of the Virginia House of Burgesses “actually flooded with their horrible spitting” and the floors of some churches black with “ejection after ejection, incessant from the twenty mouths” of men in the choir. (Birth of the Modern: pp. 50-54)