The Manners of Freemen

When I read Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) I am amused at the foolish prejudice with which the wife of a British lawyer looked at the dynamic and lively American society which did not exactly follow all the conventions, etiquette, and snobbishness of the British high society at the time. Of course, Mrs. Trollope didn’t lie about the Americans, they were exactly what she described them: uncultured, direct, politically incorrect, honest, and hyperactive. But what she missed is that that’s exactly what one should expect of a people who were in the process of expanding and conquering a continent; had she returned back to her own Britain just two centuries before her own time, she would have seen the same thing among the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians who were just as committed to conquering the world and just as resentful of the snobbishness of the Cavaliers and the Court.

Her prejudice and foolishness aside, the book is a delight to read to those who just like America as she was before public education and political correctness destroyed that original spirit which made her great. What to Mrs. Trollope’s British lack of wisdom and discernment sounds like nonsense, is a music to my ears; I learned a lot from her as what freemen should be and what values they should have for their society.

One of my favorite exchanges in the book comes when she commented to a simple milkman that Americans spent a good deal of time in reading the newspapers. The exchange is one of the greatest examples of the difference in thinking between a freeman and a member of a feudal society:

“I’d like you to tell me how we can spend it better. How should freemen spend their time, but looking after their government, and watching that them fellers as we give offices to, doos their duty, and gives themselves no airs?”

“But I sometimes think, sir, that your fences might be in more thorough repair, and your roads in better order, if less time was spent in politics.”

“The Lord! to see how little you knows of a free country! Why, what’s the smoothness of a road, put against the freedom of a free-born American? And what does a broken zig-zag signify, comparable to knowing that the men what we have been pleased to send up to Congress speaks handsome and straight, as we chooses they should?”

“It is from a sense of duty, then, that you all go to the liquor store to read the papers?”

“To be sure it is, and he’d be no true born American as didn’t. I don’t say that the father of a family should always be after liquor, but I do say that I’d rather have my son drunk three times in a week, than not to look after the affairs of his country.”

From the perspective of an European, America was a mess. There was no rhyme and a reason to the chaotic movements and interactions of people in the cities or in the countryside. Nothing was organized, there was no formal social structure that placed a man in his place, as was the society in Britain. A person could climb to riches in one day and experience a free fall the next day. People lived in houses that were horrible by the European standards; families in the West built houses of mud or spent years in the wilderness as lumberjacks or trappers; in the East, where business was thriving, people jumped from one occupation to another, started businesses, failed, and then started again, or got hired on ships to make up for the losses, and then tried their luck again. Even the church was not a single, solid, official organization as it was in England. The churches did take care of the poor and the needy but a man was responsible to decide what church he’d join out of the diversity of them.

And in all this mess, even more puzzling for a European, Americans were passionately involved in politics. Their roads were bumpy – or non-existent – their fences and houses needed repair, but for an American, a freeman wasn’t a man who worried about the little inconveniences of life if the greater issue – that of his liberty – was left unresolved. Life was tough, dangerous, and there weren’t any luxuries to talk about. But a freeman welcomed such a life, as long as he could keep his liberty, and as long as he could “watch them fellers” that he has “been pleased to send up to Congress.” And when he read the newspapers, he did it not to get informed about the latest gossip about the movie stars but to “look after his government.”

In a very real sense, Mrs. Trollope did us a service: She left a very clear description that the freemen that created America despised a life of security and luxury and self-consciously traded it for a life of liberty and independence. These early Americans would have revolted against Social Security, Medicare, TSA, safety regulations, workers’ compensations, commercial clauses, government schools, restrictions on drinking and gambling, political correctness, etc., if they knew that would have taken their liberties away. They were their own safety and security, and they were their own courts and police. They were also the police that oversaw the politicians themselves, and they made sure politicians were afraid of them. And the press was there to supply them with information, not to pander to their base passions, because those early Americans were able and willing to forgo immediate pleasure if their liberty was in danger.

Those were the manners of the freemen that bequeathed to us this great nation. These are the manners that build and maintain a successful civilization. When these manners are lost, a nation is near its death. We better re-learn them quick before it’s too late.