American Visions

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Brace your nerves and steel your face and be nothing daunted,” an Irish immigrant named John Stott wrote on the back of the trans-Atlantic tickets he was sending to folks back home in the 1848, hoping that they, too, would come to America, “this Great Continent.” He added: “There will be dificultyes to meet with but then consider the object you have in view.” The last sentence could serve as a motto for Edward L. Ayers’s “American Visions,” a sweeping, briskly narrated history of the United States as it limped its circuitous way to the Civil War.

There’s much in Mr. Ayers’s book about those “dificultyes.” During the first half of the 19th century, the country tripled in size. In 1848, at the end of a costly war that brought half of Mexico into the national fold, President James Polk exulted: “The United States are now estimated to be nearly as large as the whole of Europe.” As trans-Atlantic voyages shortened from multiple weeks to a handful of days, space in the urban centers came at a premium. In New York, notes Mr. Ayers, boarding houses were soon packing five to a room. Many of these new Americans were Irish (more than 700,000 arrived between 1846 and 1850 alone)—too many, in the eyes of native-born citizens. “They come not only to work & eat, or die,” worried the Philadelphia lawyer Sidney George Fisher, “but to vote.”

More people didn’t mean more freedoms. Mr. Ayers is clear-eyed about the violence that troubled the early republic. He reminds us not only of the thousands of Seminole lives lost when they were forcibly removed from Florida but also of the price paid by the soldiers who were sent into malaria-ridden swamps on President Andrew Jackson’s orders (the whole operation would end up costing, Mr. Ayers writes, a trillion dollars in today’s currency). Switching between local events and national developments, “American Visions” captures the growing rift in the fragile national fabric: As Southern racial attitudes became entrenched, Northerners settled into unearned smugness about their own moral superiority. Sometimes, confronted with the stories retold in this book, one wonders how people carried on at all. The abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, standing before the charred body of a lynched man, felt that part of his life had ended at that point, too: “As we turned away, in bitterness of heart we prayed that we might not live.”

Undeterred, Mr. Ayers describes himself, in his introduction, as an “optimistic person.” And his “American Visions,” despite the jaundiced eye it casts over much of the republic’s early history, is an inspiring book, promoting a sturdy sense of patriotism—one that, aware of the nation’s failings, remembers its “highest ideals of equality and mutual respect.”

In “American Visions,” by contrast, Mr. Ayers focuses less on the observers than on those who took matters into their own hands. In 1827, Jarena Lee, a young widow and member of Philadelphia’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, traveled across 2,325 miles to deliver 178 sermons in churches, barns and meeting halls. “Why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper, for a woman to preach?” she asked defiantly. The similarly restless John Chapman (1774-1845), a Swedenborgian and the model for “Johnny Appleseed,” roamed the country, barefoot and dressed in rags, giving the gift of apple trees (and perhaps also of hard cider) to struggling farmers, reminding them of God’s presence in nature. Rather than await divine validation, the Massachusetts reformer Dorothea Dix (1802-87) successfully lobbied for better facilities to house those considered insane, becoming, in her words, “the Revelation of hundreds of wailing, suffering creatures.”

But “American Visions” has moments of hilarity, too, particularly when a characteristically American inclination to bring things down to earth—Mark Twain would become its consummate chronicler—manifests itself in the face of lofty rhetoric. In 1843, the multitalented Samuel F.B. Morse persuaded Congress to fund, to the tune of $30,000 (about $1.2 million in today’s money), a telegraphic test line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore: 38 miles of wire strung along the Baltimore Ohio Railroad. On May 24, 1844, Morse sat down in the chambers of the Supreme Court to transmit his first long-distance message, a sonorous invocation suggested by a friend: “What hath God wrought!” Drawn from Numbers 23:23, the phrase seemed appropriate, the weight of biblical wisdom translated into Morse’s dots and dashes, a prediction of future national greatness. The response that came in from Baltimore was underwhelming: “Yes.” Indeed, as Mr. Ayers points out, it would take years of innovation before the telegraph supplied the “sensorium of communicated intelligence” the newspapers had envisioned.

“American Visions” beautifully shows how remarkably resilient dreams of a better republic remained even in the darkest of times. When he heard talk of America’s “manifest destiny,” the elderly Albert Gallatin, formerly Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury secretary, didn’t mince words: “Allegations of superiority of race and destiny are but pretences under which to disguise ambition, cupidity, or silly vanity.” Resistance against exclusive definitions of community was, Mr. Ayers contends, in the American grain. When the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith founded Nauvoo, his holy city in Illinois, he insisted that the new settlement was open to “persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color.”

The big-tent approach is also Mr. Ayers’s method. It is refreshing to encounter a book that gives equal billing to Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Yet Mr. Ayers’s inclusiveness comes with value judgments, too. Most will agree that Edgar Allan Poe was a genius, but was he “the most brilliant writer in the United States,” surpassing Herman Melville or Walt Whitman? And was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic, “The Song of Hiawatha,” really little more than a flowery ersatz Native American fantasy “larded . . . with footnotes”? A closer look reveals the commendable effort Longfellow made (in endnotes, for what it’s worth) to document the Ojibwe words that laced his lines.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)