Thursday, April 25, 2013

Daniel Kilbride's "Being American in Europe, 1750–1860"

Daniel Kilbride is an associate professor of history at John Carroll University in Ohio. He is the author of An American Aristocracy: Southern Planters in Antebellum Philadelphia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Being American in Europe, 1750–1860, and reported the following:
Why would Americans in the decades before the Civil War travel to Europe? It was hard to do in those days – you didn’t board a plane in Chicago, watch a few movies and have a couple of drinks, and land at Heathrow eight hours later. Also, Americans in those days were hard-core patriots. Visitors like Alexis deTocqueville were continually pestered by Americans to affirm their smug convictions of their superiority to the supposedly feeble, corrupt, and despotic Old World. And if Americans were inclined to listen to their intellectuals, they would have gotten the same message: “It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans,” Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted.

In researching Being American in Europe, 1750-1861, I discovered neither creaky ships, patriotism, nor intellectual nagging kept Americans from sailing abroad: they went, and they went in ever larger numbers. What were they doing there? It turns out that American exceptionalism was more flexible than we have been accustomed to think. Yes, Americans saw themselves as special. But they also thought that, over time, other peoples would share in that specialness: they would become more democratic, more egalitarian, and more progressive. From the 1750s and 60s, when Americans went abroad to affirm their Englishness, until 1860, when Americans had developed a mature sense of their national identity vis-à-vis Europe, travelers struggled to situate themselves within western civilization. How could Americans reconcile with Britain? How could they see Catholicism as anything but superstition? How could they accommodate themselves to gentility? What did Europe mean to them? Those are the questions that I address in Being American in Europe.

Page 99 explores these themes nicely. There, we find Americans struggling to come to grips with European corruption. Martha Richardson, a refreshingly realistic woman, does not expect her nephew to avoid vice: she just implores him not to dive in head first. Joshua Fisher unconvincingly tells his mother from Paris that the “haunts of vice” have no allure for him. And Elizabeth Salisbury begs her son to resist temptation by clinging to faith. All those negative associations of Europe, it is important to note, didn’t stop these young men (and an increasingly large number of women) from going: they visited anyway, because the imperative to connect the young nation to Europe was stronger than the impulse to separate.

From page 99:
It was the rare family that did not fret for the moral health of traveling sons. Martha Richardson told her nephew, “I would not keep you from a knowledge of vice,” but she hoped he would not indulge so deeply that he would spurn the path of righteousness. Most advice givers thought it was best to avoid temptation altogether. As her son Stephen set off on an extensive tour, Elizabeth Salisbury implored him to shun sinfulness. She admonished her young son to “resist temptation and return to your widow’d mother improved in every venture which can adorn the man--fix’d or established in religious principles.” Young men tried to reassure their families on this point. Joshua Francis Fisher told his mother that every day he spent in Paris taught him to appreciate the “worldly advantage & pleasure that is to be derived from religion and virtue.” Although as an explorer of sorts he felt compelled “to visit many of the haunts of vice,” he reassured his mother--not very convincingly--that they would “offer no allurements” for him.

Americans struggled to explain the extent of crime, prostitution, sexual license, and other forms of vice they saw abroad. Henry Colman saw things in Edinburgh’s slums he hesitated to describe in print lest the paper become “absolutely offensive to the touch.” Poverty was to blame, he concluded: only “the most disgusting and loathsome forms of destitution” could explain the depths of depravity he witnessed. Charles Rockwell, a U.S. Navy chaplain, thought that standing armies, and the monarchies they supported, created a demand for mass, almost institutionalized, vice. Separated at a young age from family and community, soldiers became corrupted by their comrades, resulting in “a kind of systematic and licensed concubinage, as directly opposed to the principles of morality as it is to the cultivation of all the higher social and domestic virtues.” Few Americans failed to blame the Catholic Church for the Continent’s low moral state. John Clark specifically blamed Rome for corrupting Europe’s women. Catholicism--what Clark called “Heathenism and paganized Christianity”--reduced women to the level of a slave, he explained. Only Protestantism elevated women to “the sphere for which she was intended by her Creator.” Travelers’ favored explanations for European vice--poverty, militarism, and Catholicism--served to underscore the distance between the Old and New Worlds.
Learn more about Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue