Readings from Paul Johnson #4

Continuing with my selected portions from Paul Johnson’s book, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830.

When Leftists Liked America

Among British progressives, who included so many opinion formers, writers and journalists, the ideological sentiment was overwhelmingly pro-American. Indeed, from the 1790s to the end of the 1860s, America was the favorite country of virtually all British intellectuals of the Left of the political spectrum, just as the Soviet Union was to be for Western intellectuals generally in the period 1918-1945.

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 the Annual 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.”

Lord Byron had similar ideas planted in his mind by his progressive-minded mother. Through out his life, he applauded American Republicanism and looked on individual American with favor. … Despite what he called “the coarseness and rudeness of its people,” he praised the country as “A Model of force and freedom and moderation.”
Liberals like Byron were so enamored of the general system of government in the United States that, like the political pilgrims to Russia in the 1930s, they were prepared to overlook or justify short-comings which, in any other context, they would have deplored. Thus Byron scarcely ever referred to the American slave states – the point on which all Tories pounced. John Stuart Mill, who emerged from his conditioning a reliable exponent of the progressive viewpoint, did not hesitate to defend, in an article in the radical weekly Examiner, Jackson’s Indian removal policy, which had been criticized in The Times.
…the noisy Tory radical William Cobbett (1763-1835), fled to the United States in 1817 to escape prosecution for libel, and farmed for a year on Long Island, publishing an account of his experience on his return to Britain in 1819. Cobbett was no starry-eyed political pilgrim. He thought that the British people would not like the way of life in the newly settled interior – “To boil their pot in the gipsy fashion, to have a mere board to eat on, to drink whiskey or pure water, to sit and sleep under a shed … to have a mill at 20 miles distance, and apothecary at a hundred and a doctor nowhere” was not acceptable.

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)


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