What 19th-Century Foreign Writers Said about American Freedom and Prosperity

Published May 2, 2019

If you look at the results of relatively open and competitive market economies over the years, the decades, and especially the last two centuries, the only conclusion that can reasonably be reached is that free market liberal-oriented societies provide the conditions and opportunities for constant and continuous material and social betterment for the vast majority of those living in such political-economic systems.

If one reflects for a moment on the fact that the historically normal and natural condition of man for all of recorded history up to about three centuries ago was abject and horrendous poverty and compare that with all that has happened during, especially the last two hundred years, the transformation in the human circumstance has been nothing short of remarkable if not seemingly miraculous.

Prosperity and Life Expectancy 200 Years Ago and Now

Around 1820, the world’s population is estimated to have been about one billion people, out of which demographers and economic historians estimate that at least 85 to 90 percent of whom lived at or not much above starvation poverty. Today the world’s population numbers in the neighborhood of 7.7 billion people, out of which only about 10 percent are calculated to still live in poverty; and that latter number continues to decrease with every passing year.

In the early 1800s average life expectancy in Europe was between 30 and 40 years of age. By the early 1900s, that had increased to a life expectancy, on average, into the 60s for Europeans and North Americans. And today in these two parts of the world, this has gone up to the high 70s and into the low and mid-80s years of age at time of death. Other areas around the globe are not far behind, with life expectancy in general and on average in Africa now in the 60s and 70s, after being less than 30 years of age in the early 1900s. And life expectancy in most of Asia in 2018 was also in the mid- to high 70s.

What kind of a society makes this all possible, the social, economic and technological and scientific advancements? That society which allows the widest latitudes of individual liberty and freedom of enterprise. We take much of this for granted in the United States. Maybe we shouldn’t. America and Americans are wide open for scathing criticism today, in terms of our past and our present. What might be being left out?

Sailing Ships to and Railways Across America

I recently have been reading a number of books written by European travellers who visited the United States, particularly, in the early and mid-decades of the 19th century. Many of us are familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous Democracy in America (1836; 1840), in which he recounted his observations and interpretations of America and its institutions after an extended journey around the country in the early 1830s. But, in fact, there were dozens of such volumes by a wide variety of visitors to North America. And you learn from them a lot about what everyday life was like in the United States during, say, the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s as a benchmark for thinking about today.

Travel across the Atlantic from England to New York by sailing ship took anywhere between four and six weeks, depending on the weather and the currents. Some of the writers reminded their readers that the great new means of land transportation that was rapidly being introduced particularly in Great Britain and the United States in the 1830s was the railway. They counted up the hundreds of miles of railway track laid or in the process of being constructed across the United States east of the Mississippi River.

They marveled at the speed at which a train could now transport a human being through space in the 1830s – between 30 and 40 miles per hour! However, as one British traveler and liberal member of Parliament, James Stirling, explained in his Letters from the Slave States (1857), the railway passenger cars in America each had a coal-burning stove at one end of the carriage that often filled the air with a thick fog of smoke and generated suffocating heat that could only be balanced by opening some windows, which made it uncomfortably cold for those sitting next to one of those open windows in the winter months.

Almost two hundred years before the Internet, travellers acquired the latest news about the city to which they were traveling by railway in an interesting manner. German-born Francis Lieber, who became the first professor of political science at Columbia University in New York City, recounted in, The Stranger in America (1836), how there might be two trains traveling in opposite directions between, say, Philadelphia and New York. As they passed each other at 40 miles an hour, with the train tracks close together, people moving in opposite directions would hold out of their passenger carriage windows copies of the day’s newspaper from the city they had left so it could be grabbed by someone going to that city as a destination. Sometimes people would play tricks on each other, and pass old newspapers from days or weeks before.

Waterways, Steamboats, and Waves of Migrants

The waterways, natural and manmade, were the other major means of longer-distance travel in those mid-19th century decades. Steam-powered riverboats offered comfort, entertainment, food, and sleeping cabins. Less than $10 could get you from St. Louis to New Orleans along the Mississippi River in just a few days. Of course, this mode of transportation had its problems. German writer, Francis J. Grund, pointed out in The Americans in their Moral, Social and Political Relations (1837) that the journey from, say, Pittsburgh to New Orleans by steamboat had the peril of the boat’s boiler possibly exploding, or the boat sinking due to tree trunks and other underwater hazards, or colliding into other boats in the darkness of night. Dozens or even hundreds of people would be killed in these ways on a regular basis. But passengers just took this in stride; the dead were mourned and buried, and the surviving travellers simply went on their way.

Another German traveler, Frederick von Raumer explained in, America and the American People (1846), that by foot, or covered wagon, or riverboat, or train, the waves of immigrants coming from Europe spread out across the land, clearing fields, building towns, creating communities of private enterprises, schools, churches, charities, and neighborliness. Nothing was static or stationary. Everything was growing and new. Civilization could be seen rising out of the wilderness.

Enterprise, Industry, and Education in America

While Americans, settling in this new land, were focused on practical knowledge of building, creating, and profiting from making things for themselves and to market to others in other parts of America and around the world, already they placed a high value on education, reading, and knowing about the events going in the rest of the United States. Even the smallest hamlet soon had its own newspaper or two, and the “little red school house” was quickly constructed to make literate all the children in the local community. Several of these European visitors emphasized the high level of literacy among the American population compared to Europeans in general, and the normally informed and intelligent conversation on political and social matters that even the seemingly isolated farmer or small town craftsman could frequently and easily enter into.

Men were focused on and tied up with business and enterprise. Rarely did they find a laggard, loafer, and lazybones among the male population, our visitors said. The few that there were, were viewed with disregard and disrespect as failing themselves, their families, and their country in not being industrious, self-supporting, and a good citizen in improving the conditions of America through self-interested, productive private enterprise.

There was little time for reflective readings on philosophy or poetry or the arts. Your financial successes of today could turn into bankruptcy tomorrow. You had to be alert to opportunities for profit and avoidance of losses. And if business failures came, you had to be ready to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. After all, there was this whole continent before you waiting for exploration, agricultural and industrial development, and commercial dealings for gainful employment for all those with just a little bit of self-initiative.

The competitive spirit, as a result, was everywhere. As the French traveller and political economist, Michel Chevalier, pointed out in his, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States (1839), “An American’s business is always to be on the edge lest his neighbor get there before him. If a hundred Americans were about to go before a firing squad, they would start fighting for the privilege of going first, so used are they to competition!”

Women as the Carriers of Culture and Good Works

Women may not have had the vote, but they were not simply barefoot, pregnant and cooking away in the kitchen all hours of the day. In fact, in most instances, it was very much the opposite. This, too, was something that nearly all these visitors to America took time to describe and bring out. To begin with, all these European travellers observed the politeness, respect, and gentlemanliness with which women of any social status or family background were treated. A single woman of any age could travel by day or night; she could do so by train, riverboat, or stagecoach, and virtually never fear of being molested in any way. Formally reported or informally known instances of such conduct were very few and far between from all accounts at that time in American history.

If men were occupied with the business of earning a successful living for themselves and their families, women were expected and encouraged to become educated and well read in all those things that fathers, brothers, and husbands did not have the time or interest to attend to.

The famous British author and political economist, Harriet Martineau, in Society in America(1837), brought this out by mentioning how while traveling in Ohio an ordinary farmer that she started up a conversation with asked what might be the latest books on philosophy and the natural sciences published in Europe, so he might order them for his daughter, whose education and knowledge he was always on the outlook to broaden.

Even the most “cultured” (and snobbish) of these European male travellers commented on the frequency and degree to which they had stimulating conversations with American women in different social circumstances, though most frequently those in what we now call the “middle class,” about music, art, philosophy, literature, and the sciences. These women often demonstrated acquaintance with the latest works on these themes published in both America and in Europe in several languages, and with a nuanced insight and appreciation in these areas.

Indeed, cultivating of “culture” within the family was the domain of wives and mothers. As was the doings of “good works.” Husbands and fathers may have provided the monies for private charity and philanthropy – and, again, many of these writers brought out the extent to which the “private sector” funded, organized, and managed community problems of society – but it was the wives and daughters who gave of their time and efforts for assisting the poor, tutoring the illiterate who often were newly arrived on American shores, and who handled the outreach of church activities in neighborhoods.

Indeed, women made society “work” outside of the predominantly male arena of market supply and demand. Women were the societal glue that held it all together. And who often had strong and, again, informed views on political issues even if they could not enter the voting booth.

But besides this, women could and did work on their own, away from home, earning, spending and saving their own money. One foreign traveller visited Lowell, Massachusetts and saw the manufacturing mills, many of them employing single young women who came from other parts of New England. The private enterprises encouraged the establishment of boarding houses in which the female employees could live, in safe and pleasant surroundings. These women could sometimes earn anywhere from $7 to $10 a day. If that seems low, keep in mind that room and board in one of these boarding houses, the traveller tells us, could be had for $1 to $3 per week. A goodly sum of money could be saved and set aside by these independent women for whatever future they might decide upon for themselves.

Self-Government as the Key to American Prosperity

What made America “work,” almost all these visitors emphasized, was the spirit of self-government.  In the face of the history and practice throughout the ages of tyranny and despotism, monarchy and aristocracy, America was this self-declared and self-established system of representative, republican government. Americans of all political views were proud to call themselves “democrats” with a small “d.” Here in America the people ruled. The voting franchise was wider and more extensive than in even the most enlightened of the more liberal societies in Europe during those early and middle decades of the 19th century.

But the real self-government in America was the self-governing individual who guided and planned his own life in peaceful and voluntary association with others in society, and independently of of the much smaller and much less interventionist government at that time in American history. Yes, state and federal governments handed out favors, tax monies, subsidies, contracts and jobs to those who had assisted and supported the politicians elected to office.

But, in general, they seem microscopic compared to the omnipresence of government in people’s social and economic lives today, though in that earlier time political spending was already the basis of many of the political scandals and controversies. It may not have been a theoretical laissez-faire, but the state barely touched or interfered with most people’s lives on an everyday basis. Yes, there were blue laws prohibiting businesses from operating on Sundays. And, indeed, the city government of Baltimore would fine you $1 if you played ball or flew a kite on “the Lord’s day.” Plus, there were strong social (though no longer political) pressures to attend church, but what church you might attend did not matter and was respected by virtually all as matters of private conscience.

Jews in America were equally respected in the belief and practice of their faith. There may have been private prejudices, but there was no politically supported or tolerated anti-Semitism for all intents and purposes. If there did arise tensions, it was between Catholics (especially with the influx of large numbers of Irish immigrants) and Protestants, due to the belief by the latter that the former were “pope-worshipers” who took their political orders from the priesthood. Ignorance and prejudice led to episodes of violence, but in general religious tolerance was both preached and very mostly practiced.

The Importance of the Self-Governing Individual

But America for many was a free land of self-governing individuals who were the basis all the improvements and prosperity in this young and growing America.

Adam Gurowski was a Polish nobleman, who immigrated to the United States in 1849, and after spending eight years in America as a new American taken by the spirit of freedom he found here, he wrote his impressions of the differences between, America and Europe (1857). He explained the spirit and results of that free and self-governing individual:

“Every thing great, beneficial, useful in America, is accomplished without the action of the so-called government, notwithstanding even its popular, self-governing character. Individual impulses, private enterprise, association, free activity, the initiative pouring everlastingly from within the people, are mostly substituted here for what in European societies and nations forms the task of governments . . .

“But by far the larger number of monuments, works and useful establishments, for industry, trade, for facilitating and spreading tuition and mental culture, universities, schools and scientific establishments, are created and endowed by private enterprise, by private association, and by individual munificence . . .

“Neither individuals separately, nor the aggregated people look to the government for such creations; private association and enterprise, those corollaries of self-government – untrammelled by governmental action – have covered the land [with progress] . . .

“All this could not have been miraculously carried out, if the American people had been accustomed to look to a government for the initiative, instead of taking it themselves. Without the self-governing impulse, America would be materially and socially a wilderness.”

The spirit and the institutions of America made freedom, opportunity and increasing prosperity possible. All of these travellers commented on that fact that wages, across the board, were higher in America than in Europe; that self-employment and owning your own business was widely available to almost all who had the will, the determination, and, of course, a bit of luck, to try. The Old World’s rigid social structures and aristocratic privileges did not exist in America.

Americans were proud to call themselves those “democrats,” with that small “d,” not only because so many in the male population had the right to vote, but because there was a sense of everyone was just as good as another. If someone’s social status in society was higher than another, it was not because of the accident of birth concerning noblemen and commoners, but because someone had earned recognition in the eyes of others due to merit. That earned merit might have been due to success in business and private enterprise, but could have been earned through any of number of other peaceful and productive and valued ways in the wider community.

Slavery as the Sore in the American Soul

We have a tendency to think that the times we are living in is a turning point in history. And so, those European observers recorded the controversies and fears among the Americans of that time: the rich will be an overbearing and despotic aristocracy that will destroy America’s free government; the democratic majority will become a mob manipulated by a demagogue who will tear down the institutions of society, creating chaos and despair. Can we successfully integrate into mainstream American society all those drunken, hot-tempered Irish immigrants? What about those Germans immigrants who form their own communities and want to speak German rather than learn English? And all the newspapers accused their rivals for readership of spreading what today we call “fake news.” Andrew Jackson seemed to arouse about as much blind loyalty and hysterical opposition as Donald Trump today. Was he the savior of America or its destroyer? Sound familiar?

But one issue all these foreign visitors inescapably devoted some time to write about based on their journeys around America was slavery. Whatever the other issues and arguments, slavery was the political point of gravity around which everything else in American politics eventually seemed to revolve. It was the sore eating away at the soul of the country.

Harriet Martineau said that in evaluating and judging America in her book, she would not use any of the past or existing institutions of Europe as a benchmark, but, instead, judge Americans by their own stated founding principles, and the extent to which they lived up to and practiced them. Slavery was the clearest inconsistency and contradiction. To gain the South’s acceptance of the new Constitution of 1787, the Northern states acquiesced in the practice of slavery in the Southern part of the country. And the free states became accomplices to the crime of slavery in agreeing to return runaway slaves to their Southern masters. Miss Martineau said in 1836:

I know that slavery is only recognized by the constitution as a matter of fact; and that it is only twice mentioned; in connection with representation, and with the restitution to their masters of “persons held to labor escaping into another Slate”: but the fact remains that a man who abhors slavery is compellable by the law, which his fathers made, to deliver up to the owner a slave whose act of absconding he approves. It is impossible to estimate the evils which have proceeded from, and which will yet arise out of this guilty but “necessary” compromise.

Seeing the Slave Markets and the Overseers at Work

Most of these travellers in America were strongly anti-slavery and were shocked and disgusted by what they saw when in any of the Southern slave states. For instance, a Russian visitor, Alexandr Borisovich Lakier, and the British traveller, Charles MacKay, the author of Life and Liberty in America: Sketches of a Tour (1859), were in New Orleans in 1857; separately and not knowing each other, they both visited the city’s slave market.

Lakier and MacKay both wrote of their personal disgust and revulsion on seeing the trading of human beings as if they were cattle. They both experienced the slave auctioneer thinking they were possible buyers, and showing the female slaves to them, and whispering about their charms and the use they could make of them. And, how, under the auctioneer’s command, the females available for sale begged both men to please buy them. Lakier also witnessed the overseers at the New Orleans docks using their whips to keep the slaves working fast unloading cargoes from ships arriving from up or down the Mississippi River.

The modern reader is more surprised and thrown off balance, when reading one of these accounts by a European visitor, who when he comes to explaining slavery in the American South to his European readers, suddenly forgets all his praising of human liberty, emphasis on equality before the law, and the importance of freedom in fostering independence, industry and justice. He now rationalizes human bondage for the good of Southern prosperity, and then shows himself as a self-declared white racist, saying that the African needs his white master, without whom he cannot take care of himself.

There may have been debates and disputes about import tariffs and federal tax revenues being used for “internal improvements” (infrastructure) that seemed to benefit one section of the country over another. But everything that finally led to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 came from the cancerous contradiction of slavery in a country founded on the principle of universal, and unalienable individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But out of this terrible mark on early America is that fact that after thousands of years of the institution of slavery, a country was born that declared in its founding principles the rightness and justness of individual freedom for all. And that eventually this contradiction would have to lead to either to the end of human bondage or to a destruction of the country and what it was supposed to stand for.

America’s Prosperity and Opportunity for All

America is still struggling with the legacy of this most “peculiar institution.” But compare aspects of daily life about two hundreds years ago, and now for everyone in America. Think of the technological advancements, the improvements in transportation, the gains in quality and longevity of life that we all share in. The everyday conveniences and amenities that all of us do not give a second thought to in relation to how people in America lived during the times when those foreign visitors came to America’s shores, and how America already seemed an economic land of boundless opportunity and prosperity for many of even the most “commonest” of men in comparison to Europe, which was ahead of everywhere else in the world at that time.

These gains and betterments in human life over the last two centuries did not come from government, did not come from central planning or bureaucratic regulation of production and consumption. They did not come from political paternalists presuming what is right for you and for me. It came from the spirit and practice of individual self-government over each person’s own life and liberty, and from the incentives and innovations that emerged from a free arena of free trade and voluntary association.

And to the extent, degrees and forms that the has been at least partly possible in other parts of the world, the rest of humanity has been benefiting and experiencing the prosperity that freedom makes real. Looking backward can sometimes make us to have a better idea of how to move forward. America’s history can assist us in doing this.

[Originally Published at AIER]