The West That Was, Part 3

19th Century America

If we wish to grasp American life in the 19th century, it’s probably best to start by understanding that when America was young, it had no myth. Once we really understand that, the rest falls into place fairly easily. Here’s how Alexis de Tocqueville (in National Character of Americans) described it in the 1830s:

Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.

We all know that national leaders promote myths about their glorious nation: one or more “uniquenesses” that give the people of their nation a fast, easy and noble identity. And assuredly American myths have been promoted all through our lifetimes. But in its early years, America had no such myth. America was a rebellious upstart; a collection of violent and uncivilized farmers who made so much trouble for the British that they eventually pulled out. Some Americans saw themselves as heroic, but educated and powerful people worldwide considered them semi-barbaric.

And so, Americans couldn’t claim glorious ancestors or much anything else to gain fast and cheap self-esteem; they’d have to earn it… they’d have to show the rest of the world that self-governing peasants could out-produce nations guided by enlightened aristocrats. And so the minds of Americans were focused on actual production, education and progress instead of national myths.

This lack of a myth – this focus on reality and legitimate production – combined with room for expansion, an influx of self-motivated immigrants and other factors to forge a broadly shared belief in self-generated progress.

As always there were difficulties and ugliness. America just barely made it into the 19th century intact. Between the writing of the constitution and Jefferson’s presidency things were quite uncertain and a rapacious group of speculators, legislators and business people nearly captured the entire operation; certainly they damaged it. But, limping its way through, American society began to solidify by the late 1820s and moved forward from there.

Laying aside the problem of slavery (and we should remember that slavery was upheld and enforced by all three branches of the US government, then unraveled by law-breaking Christians), we find a time of freedom and immense progress. Here are some of the factors that made this era special:

A lack of central banks.

The Second Bank of The United States ended in 1836 and any concerns for bank regulation fell to the various states. Under the “free banking” laws of 1837, anyone who filled out the paperwork and made a deposit with their state was given a banking charter. More than half the states had such laws. In the 1860s several more attempts at centralization were made, and a “national bank” system was created, but this was still not a central bank. In the end gold and silver were the reserve currencies of the day and goods tended to be priced accordingly. The national government tried various methods of regaining monopoly power over banking, but never really got it until 1914, meaning that this era was mainly free of central banking.

Room to expand.

During this era there was almost always new and fertile land available. If you didn’t like the rulership being imposed upon you, you could simply move west, and so many people did. There were hundreds of Utopian communities created. There’s far more to this story than can be recounted here, but it involved people getting away from expectations and getting very busy with experiments in living.


Railroads were built more of less everywhere during this era, greatly empowering commerce and creating innumerable new communities along their routes. Along with them came telegraph stations and much more. America life spread out and blossomed, all of it driven by willful individuals, not by the tops of hierarchies.


Perhaps because the enlightened types of Europe looked down upon them, or perhaps because conditions supported it, Americans, even on the distant frontier, were eager readers… eager self-educators. For example, Blackstone’s commentaries on the common law, throughout this era, were outsold only by the Bible. And de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, notes this:

There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.

Added to this was the almost universal habit of Church on Sundays. One crucial aspect of this was that it exposed the vast majority of the populace to serious thoughts for at least one hour every week. And if you read the sermons of the era you’ll find most are rather surprising in the strength of their intellectual content. On top of that, all members of the community sat with one another as peers at church. There were exceptions, of course (some of the Puritans of New England, for example), but in the main this held, and served as a glue for the communities.

Talent unchained.

Talent, in 19th century America, had no regulatory hoops to jump through. If, for example, you were a bright young man with an interest in medicine, you did not have to spend ten years in various schools before you could treat patients; rather, you had to convince the existing medical doctors that you were competent. (This was usually done with some sort of apprenticeship, and the model held for lawyers and engineers as well.)

An anti-slavery hero we covered in an issue of FMP Classic was such a bright young man. His formal education had ended by the time he was twelve, and yet he was a respected surgeon when he was still 23 years old. Certainly he was an unusual talent, but still he did this, illustrating our point: talent was not unnaturally restrained throughout this era.

We could also discuss Thomas Edison, the great inventor of the age, whose education ended at the fifth grade, or Abraham Lincoln, who became a highly sought-after lawyer, having been self-educated in a rural cabin.

This was a time in which your abilities were not restrained by bureaucrats “keeping people safe.”

Last Words

19th century America was an exceptionally free and productive time. Consequently, the standard of living rocketed upward through it. To whatever extent possible, I’d like to reclaim many characteristics of this era.

I’ll leave you with a few more passages from Alexis de Tocqueville’s, Democracy in America, based upon his extensive travels in 1831:

The Americans never use the word peasant, because they have no idea of the class which that term denotes; the ignorance of more remote ages, the simplicity of rural life, and the rusticity of the villager have not been preserved among them; and they are alike unacquainted with the virtues, the vices, the coarse habits, and the simple graces of an early stage of civilization.

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.

What most astonishes me in the United States, is not so much the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings, as the innumerable multitude of small ones.

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.

In America, the means available to the authorities to uncover crime and to arrest criminals are small in number… However, I doubt whether crime evades punishment less often in any other country…Everyone feels involved in providing evidence of the offense and in apprehending the offender… I saw inhabitants of a county where a major crime had been perpetrated spontaneously form committees with the aim of arresting the guilty man and handing him over to the courts. In Europe, the criminal is a luckless fellow, fighting to save his life from the authorities; the population, to a degree, watches as he struggles. In America, he is an enemy of the human race and has everyone entirely against him.


Paul Rosenberg