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Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character
Claude S. Fischer
University of Chicago Press, $35.00 (cloth)
On May 11, 1831, a diminutive 25-year-old Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, stepped onto a New York City wharf and began his fateful encounter with America.
Over the subsequent nine months, Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission about American prisons, ranged from the cities of the eastern seaboard to the unaxed wilderness west of Detroit. They were, Tocqueville rhapsodized, “overcome with joy,” to see “a place that the torrent of European civilization had not yet reached.” Through crippling cold they descended the great valley of the Mississippi to New Orleans, crossing paths with Choctaw Indians shivering westward on the Trail of Tears. They sipped Madeira in the White House with President Andrew Jackson (“not a man of genius,” Beaumont drolly noted). Everywhere they keenly observed the American scene.
Four years later, Tocqueville published the first volume of his monumental work, Democracy in America. Together with its companion volume, released in 1840, it remains the most astute analysis of American society ever penned, a touchstone and inspiration for all subsequent efforts to grasp the elusive essence of America’s national character.
Tocqueville saw America at a pivotal moment in its history. Just five summers before his arrival, the republic had riotously celebrated its fiftieth birthday. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—among the handful of surviving heroes of the Revolution—both had passed away on the anniversary date itself: July 4, 1826. The vanishing leaders of the founding generation had been high-minded gentlemen of privilege, dignified paragons of prudence and moderation, accustomed to deference and command. They were, as today, reverenced in the public imagination. Yet they had also been wary of the popular energies their own revolution had unleashed. They had not envisioned the raucous spectacle of Jacksonian democracy that confronted Tocqueville and pointed the way to America’s future—a society that ridiculed all vestiges of rank and lordly pretension, where employers were called “boss,” not “master,” and where ordinary men and women demanded to be addressed as “Mr. ” and “Mrs.,” titles once reserved for the highborn. Many of the founders would have been appalled at the fluid, egalitarian society that America was becoming. All would have been astonished. Tocqueville was on fire to understand it.
In the scant half-century since they had declared their independence from Britain, the Americans had effectively invented a new kind of society. It had not only a new form of government, but new customs and manners, new values and expectations and even religions. Today’s fascination with the founders may reflect in part a subliminal yearning for the relatively orderly world they inhabited, one utterly different from the restless, protean society that is the foremost legacy of the Jacksonian era.
By Tocqueville’s time the American people were beginning to limn at least the outlines of a lasting national identity. The hopes and fears that had tremulously attended the nation’s violent, revolutionary origin were giving way to earnest conjecture that America’s nascent experiment in democracy, with all its dynamism and ferment, might just prove durable—for better or worse.
Yet in 1831 America’s destiny—indeed, the destiny of any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principles of equality and sovereignty of the people—remained cloaked in uncertainty and shadowed by lingering apprehension. Tocqueville, whose temperament mixed sanguine and melancholic elements in exquisitely balanced proportions, shared that apprehension. “I confess that in America I saw more than America,” he wrote.
I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.
Tocqueville brought to his task all the resources of an uncommonly incisive and skeptical mind. As Leo Damrosch, a literature professor at Harvard, has recently written, Democracy in America is “not so much a book of answers as a book of questions,” and the issues over which Tocqueville cast his remarkably fertile intelligence “are still with us, and still unresolved. ”
American society as a whole exhibits characteristics that define a distinctive national identity.
Nearly two centuries later, both fear and hope still brood over the puzzle of America’s innermost nature, and America’s influence on the wider world. Perhaps not since its birth has the United States evoked such a contradictory compound of admiration and dread, both at home and abroad, as it does today. The quest to comprehend the American national character is, if anything, even more urgent now than it was in Tocqueville’s time.
In his brave and ambitious new book, Made in America, Claude S. Fischer energetically pursues that quest. Like Tocqueville, he focuses less on formal institutions and laws than on the gossamer tissue of attitudes, values, and beliefs—what Tocqueville referred to as “habits of the heart”—that compose what moderns might call the national psyche. Fischer takes a historical approach, yet it is noteworthy that he is not a historian but a sociologist, at the University of California, Berkeley. And his book will take its place in a distinguished scholarly tradition that historians have all but abandoned for nearly half a century.
As the late historian John Higham noted in a 1994 essay:
For many influential historians of the United States today . . . . the nation is simply a convenient arena within which some spectacle that interests the historian is easily observed. . . . the nation delimits attention, but now as a setting, not as a consciously chosen subject. . . . the ‘field’ of American history . . . is not about America but merely about what happens in the United States.
Higham found much to regret in this development. “From the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s,” he wrote, “the nation was the grand subject of American history.” It figured prominently in the work of writers such as Francis Parkman and Henry Adams, and especially so in the writings of the famed Progressive historians Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon Louis Parrington. All of them were concerned with the building of the American nation-state and the ways in which it did or did not embody and advance the principles of democracy, equality, and liberty that provided the purpose and rationale for the nation’s founding. The Progressives, in particular, were so wedded to the notion that a kind of Hegelian realization of the democratic idea constituted the master narrative of American history that they were unable, Higham said, to “address critically what they took for granted.”
But a succeeding generation of historians, coming to scholarly maturity in the years after World War II, did not take the nation for granted. Those historians self-consciously made national character—in several societies, including, conspicuously, Germany and Japan, as well as the United States—their subject. The Americanists in that cohort were later maligned with a name Higham himself gave them in a highly influential (and much misunderstood) article published in 1962: the “Consensus School.”
Higham eventually tempered his criticism of the Consensus writers, as he came to appreciate the ways in which comparative perspectives informed their work—especially their experiences during World War II, when they had “seen the United States from the outside. ” That vantage point suggested to them that America, “for better or worse, ” was uniquely “a stronghold of stability in a revolutionary world. ”
Those postwar historians were also writing in a moment at once the most racially inclusionary and least ethnically varied in American history. The civil rights movement reached a climax of sorts in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States reached a historic low of 4.7 percent in the census of 1970. (The high point of 14.7 percent came in 1910; today’s number is about 13 percent).
From that comparative perspective and in that relatively homogeneous cultural setting, a gifted group of scholars, including some eminent historians, seriously interrogated an idea first elaborated by Tocqueville in Democracy in America: not merely the American state, but American society as a whole, exhibits characteristics that define a distinctive national identity.
Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma (1944), found those defining characteristics in the “American Creed,” a cluster of values concerning equality, freedom, fairness, and individual dignity, which he posited as the birthright of even the most bigoted redneck, and therefore a reliable platform on which to build a claim for racial justice. Daniel Boorstin’s trilogy, The Americans (1958–1973), emphasized the workings of a resilient, adaptive, un-dogmatic practicality, a commonsensical, can-do spirit nurtured on the frontier but eventually pervading the entire society. Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), offered a virtuoso dilation on Tocqueville’s great insight that “the Americans were born free, instead of becoming so.” The absence of a feudal phase in American historical development, Hartz said, arrested the familiar European historical dialectic and attenuated the range of political and ideational disagreement in America (just as many contemporary commentators have suggested that the absence of a historical experience equivalent to the Reformation or the Enlightenment has given modern Islamic cultures their own distinctive caste). H. Richard Niebuhr found the roots of America’s peculiarly vigorous and fissile religious behavior in the absence of an established church and in the traits bred among an egalitarian people spreading over a large territory. David Potter, the most intellectually rigorous and influential of these several authors, claimed in People of Plenty (1954) that an unusual degree of material abundance had shaped distinctively American institutions, behaviors, values, and habits, including advertising, mobility, consumerism, and even notably indulgent child-rearing practices. Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land (1950), found a set of myths about physical space and individual autonomy, however dubiously rooted in documentable historical reality, to be nevertheless-powerful influences on the society’s enduring belief structures. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) introduced the term “other-directed” to define a peculiarly American personality type, formed by constant interaction with others in a society where ranks were indeterminate and people were therefore chronically anxious about status, identity, and self-worth. Seymour Martin Lipset described American society as a prototype for modernity itself in The First New Nation (1963), compared American and Canadian national identities in Continental Divide (1989), and summed up a lifetime of thinking about national character in American Exceptionalism (1996). Both Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart (1985), and more recently Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone (2000), have argued that unbridled individualism—a term coined by Tocqueville to describe the historical novelty of the American mindset—had by the late twentieth century dangerously undermined civic engagement and possibly threatened the society’s integrity.
Fischer creatively fuses Tocqueville’s familiar observation about Americans as inveterate joiners and his equally famous notion of individualism.
Unfortunately, historians have made no significant contributions to that body of work for nearly two generations (Bellah is a sociologist, Putnam a political scientist; Lipset, who died in 2006, was also a sociologist). Higham dated the termination of historians’ interest in national character to the 1960s and attributed it to two factors. One, he said, was “a profound revulsion, initially against the state”—the most obvious institutional representation of the nation—“for the inhumanities it perpetrated or protected at home and overseas. ” The second, and probably more dispositive, reason was a new historiography, largely European in its origins, dedicated to l’histoire totale and especially to the project of bringing onto history’s stage the stories of marginal or submerged peoples and communities, “rather than the uniqueness of any great community.”
That robust historiographical movement was further energized in the American case—where it was called “social history,” or “history from the bottom up”—by the striking emergence of black nationalist and separatist ideologies in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, the dramatic rise of an articulate feminist movement, and the no-less dramatic resumption of immigration after the repeal of the National Origins statute in 1965. In light of these anti-authoritarian developments and quests for racial, ethnic, and gender identity, it became not merely unfashionable, but professionally suicidal, for historians to suggest that the encompassing character of a society was itself a fit subject for study. In the scholarly vernacular, historians became a guild of splitters, not lumpers. In the popular vernacular, they retreated to their many separate silos and gave up the quest for a synthetic principle that might impart some measure of coherence to their prolific but woefully hermetic studies of race, class, and gender. Diversity became the guiding mantra of contemporary culture and historical scholarship alike. What unifying elements might have historically contained, connected, or shaped all that diversity were questions that went unasked.
Claude Fischer, however, dares to ask them, and, as if to challenge his historian colleagues to reenter the discussion of national character, his answers draw on impressively exhaustive reading in the large but disarticulated library of social history that has emerged in the last few decades (the endnotes and bibliography add up to nearly half the pages of Made in America). He concludes not simply that certain traits have persisted among Americans, but that certain processes have long been at work as well. He is principally interested in trends and developments and differences over time—all matters lying squarely within the historian’s province.
The central trait of the American character, Fischer says, is voluntarism. Here he creatively fuses Tocqueville’s familiar observation about Americans as inveterate joiners and his equally famous notion of individualism. Voluntarism, for Fischer, embraces both the recognition of each person as a “sovereign individual” at liberty to pursue his or her own destiny, and the belief that “individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.” And the central trend over the course of American history is the broadening ambit of voluntarism, the expanding interaction of questing selves and the several communities they seek to join and from which they expect affirmation and sustenance, both emotional and material.
That formulation allows Fischer to illuminate many phenomena, from the proliferation of religious sects to the surge in gated communities, from celebration of Barack Obama’s election to the envy animating so much of American life. Made in America sheds abundant light on the American past and helps us to understand how we arrived at our own historical moment, and who we are today. Compared with their ancestors, Fischer concludes:
Modern Americans have more of almost everything: more time on Earth, more wealth, more things, more information, more power, more acquaintances, and so many more choices. . . . Americans began as a ‘people of plenty’ in David Potter’s words, but became even more so. And, over generations, more of those who had been outside the circle of plenty and outside the culture of independence which plenty sustained . . . joined it. In this sense, more Americans became more American.
Arguably the most important of those items is choices. The capacious range of possibilities Americans face demands that they make and often remake many decisions—about what career to pursue, whom to marry, how many children to have, what loyalties to honor, where to live, how to vote, where to worship, and, yes, how to define their identities, a story that links Benjamin Franklin to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Swede Levov. Fischer insists that living their lives in such circumstances does not make Americans all alike—far from it—but that a society that nurtures that kind of diversity and constant redefinition of place and community, self and soul can legitimately claim to have a distinctive character. (Fischer also acknowledges the apparent paradox that “as individuals wrested greater personal control of their lives from arbitrary events, they made increasingly similar choices.”)
Fischer’s emphasis on diversity as a critical aspect of American national character recollects one of Potter’s cardinal points. In an essay titled “The Quest for the National Character,” Potter wrote:
In a society as complex as that of the United States . . . it may be that the common factors underlying the various manifestations [of diversity] are [what] our quest should seek. . . . To detect what qualities Americans share in their diversity may be far more revealing than to superimpose the stereotype of a fictitious uniformity,
something Potter was far too subtle and sensitive ever to have argued. “Figuratively,” Potter went on,
in seeking for what is common, one should think of the metal from which Americans are forged, no matter into how many shapes this metal may be cast, rather than thinking of a die with which they all are stamped into an identical shape.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made a similar point in his fabled dissent in the notorious 1905 Supreme Court case, Lochner v. New York. The Constitution, he said, is “made for people of fundamentally differing views.” Rather than presume uniformity, the Constitution provides the common institutional and ideational structure that informs and bounds the differences among us, and has often helped us to reconcile them. Fischer does not directly address that topic, but the Constitution may be said to be yet another defining element in the historically enduring character of American society. Every group that has sought safer standing and fuller inclusion in American life has appealed to both its spirit and its letter. The Constitution has prescribed values, and rules of fair play derived from those values, that distinguish the American game from those played elsewhere. That game has a rich and fascinating history, from Tocqueville’s time to our own, as Fischer’s important book demonstrates. It remains for historians to get back into it.
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