Only The Beginnings

In exchanging comments on aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books with another writer, she got me thinking and I found myself stating this:

The US has most definitely sadly not always been fully for everyone even if they were born in the US and desperately wished to be fully accepted.

America. Where we have been to where we are now. Today, we are so different it is almost impossible to re-picture the United States in the year of George Washington’s winning election as first president: 1789.

[From a parking viewpoint on Route 23, which winds westwards up into the Catskills from the north-south New York State Thruway (I-87). New York State is spread out immediately below. Off in the distance, to the right (on a clearer day than this) you can see to Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Photo by me, 2015.]

In 1789, the original 13 US states, hugging the Atlantic seaboard, held a total human population of about four million, which is fewer than only Connecticut in 2018. (In comparison, Great Britain and Ireland then had about nine million; France about twenty million.) Ethnically the free inhabitants of the country were mostly composed of those from the British Isles and/or their descendants, with some possessing Dutch birth or ancestry, or German, or Scandinavian, or French. There were also a tiny number of Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, and Jews (the first Jews came to the colonies in 1654) mostly in port towns. The largest “city” was Philadelphia, with about 25,000 residents. Nearly a quarter of the population – Africans and their American-born descendants – were enslaved, with most held in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; some forty percent of Virginia’s population was enslaved; over fifty percent of South Carolina’s was: whites were a minority there.

Only men – nearly all of them white men – over age twenty-one who owned relatively large amounts of property were eligible to vote. (It is often overlooked today that even the vast majority of white men could not actually vote. Even universal white male suffrage did not take hold until Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s.) As I noted last year, George Washington received exactly 43,782 votes nationwide to be elected president in 1789. So those who could vote approached doing so with the utmost seriousness, feeling they were doing so on behalf of their wives and their children as well; voting was not seen as the “individual” act that it is today.

When most people awoke each morning at sunrise for another day of often backbreaking manual labor in order to feed themselves, if they thought about anyone else at all outside of their immediate family and friends, generally they saw themselves first as residents of their county, then of their states (New Yorkers or Virginians, etc.), and only lastly as Americans. The war of 1775-83 had seen some population shifts, and some dislocation, including several hundred thousand supporters – called “Tories” by independence supporters – of the British eventually having fled, or were chased, to Canada, to British possessions in the West Indies, or even here to England itself…

[Village Green, Codicote, England. Photo by me, June 26, 2018.]

…But most still lived the same mostly isolated lives on rough small farms or in the villages where they had been born, rarely venturing more than 50 miles from home. In 1789 not a single river in the 13 states was bridged. Communications – by horse, or by sailing ship, or by foot – between even counties was slow and uncertain. Most people rarely used money, and lived subsistence lives by barter. There was no such thing as good medical care as we know it. A large part of the populace was illiterate; however, most – especially in New England thanks to village schools – could read and write at least somewhat.

Some of the letters future President Thomas Jefferson would receive between 1801-1809 make astonishing, touching, and even now and then depressing reading. Sometimes barely literate people – including women – wrote directly to the President of the United States, apologizing for their poor grammar, often looking for money or other life help, or just cursing him as a godless infidel and enemy of the people. (Assailing officialdom: Americans have always done it.) Books, especially Bibles, were expensive and prized family heirlooms. “News,” such as it was, passed by word of mouth, based on what was written in newspapers that were often wildly inaccurate or deliberate propaganda sheets.

Yet the Revolution (1776-1783) had already begun to chip away at some of that isolation and provincialism. With independence – helped by Jefferson’s “All men are created equal…” in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 – Americans began facing increasingly troubling questions of greater human equality, the rights of women, and religious equality. In 1791, anti-slavery Quakers (the Society of Friends) petitioned the new US Congress to end slavery; that first request to outlaw slavery ended up shoved into a drawer; no one in the national government really yet wanted to talk about slavery as a national issue. Women had no vote and even as adults were under the guardianship of fathers, and then of their husbands. In religion, most white Americans were Protestant Christians and took religion seriously; other faiths were few and distrusted: Roman Catholics, for example, could not legally hold office in New York State until the early 1800s; Jews were oddities, if encountered at all, and commonly known as “Israelites” or “Hebrews”; “Mohammedans,” “Hindoos,” and other non-Christians, were virtuality non-existent, and if given any thought at all they were seen mostly as incomprehensible aliens who would never live in America in any numbers.

Indians – today generally often called Native Americans – were seen by most as dangerous foreigners hovering on the frontiers ready to slaughter helpless women and children at the slightest excuse; they were dealt with by the new US federal authorities as if they were a government in Europe. Treaties were negotiated and for a time there would be an uneasy peace between whites and nearby Indians, but eventually some often destitute land-hungry whites seeking better lives would creep out into “Indian lands” to build cabins and try to farm; Indians would occasionally react violently, even “savagely,” perhaps attacking white homesteads, kidnapping children, or just killing whole families; state militias would then be called out to deal with “the lawless savages”; white soldiers would try to chase down the Indian “attackers” and usually responded also by burning down Indian villages, and also killing Indian women and children… until, eventually, there would be a new treaty negotiated, and a new “border” and well…

That America is at times rightfully criticized heavily by many today. As we understand life today, it wasn’t truly an America for all people in America; but in it we also see where we began as a country. It does not matter if you don’t see β€œyourself” in it as we all look back upon it; I don’t. What is most important for us today is what emanated from it. In so many of its people, we see the first, often fascinating, glimpses of what America – our America today – will become.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand. Photo by me, 2018.]

Ironically in the 1780s and 1790s Americans here in England, or in France, or in Spain, or in the Netherlands, often mixed in such places for the first time with fellow Americans from other US states. In doing so, they came to feel more like Americans broadly than most Americans usually did at home. The United States of America took on a truly “national” character only from a huge distance across that wide ocean.

All of THAT is what led me to want to write that novel.

In 2018, the United States is so much more than it was in those difficult and often ugly and brutal beginnings. America today would astound Americans of 1789. What an amazing and far more inclusive country has been fashioned through all the upheavals and the struggles of the last two and a half centuries.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. πŸ™‚

5 replies »

  1. July 4 is coming around, huh? Very beautiful piece! This reminded me of the days I used to look into American history because of Assassin’s Creed 3, who had a native American hero as a character. Americans then would be so culturally shocked now.


    • So true. It is indeed a very different place now in so many ways compared to what it was. Yet it stands within a framework built way back then, which has (usually) proven flexible enough to evolve over time. Remarkable, really. πŸ™‚

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  2. Dear Robert, haven’t you thought to start publishing a sort of cultural magazine? Your blogging style demands something similar. And what a cultural revolution you might start in English native world! It would be really great!

    Liked by 1 person