The Young Americans were New York’s next generation of artists, intellectuals, and activists, and reformers, many of whom were inspired by the Loco-Foco movement, which challenged Tammany Hall for supremacy in the Democratic Party from 1835 to 1837. Their philosophies generally came from the great classical liberals, radicals like Tom Paine and William Leggett, equal in stature to most Young Americans, and they shared a deep faith in America’s world historical destiny. A Young American might have been in either party, but their philosophy [00:03:00] was almost always some strain of Loco-Focoism.
John L. O’Sullivan, “The Great Nation of Futurity”
Tymn, Marshall, ed. Thomas Cole’s Poetry: The Collected Poems of America’s Foremost Painter of the Hudson River School Reflecting His Feelings for Nature and the Romantic Spirit of the Nineteenth Century. York, PA: Liberty Cap Books. 1972.
Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas”
Widmer, Edward. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999.
Anthony Comegna: In the 1830s and ’40s, Americans felt young again. In 1775, the colonists were still ruled by a king whose occupying forces took weeks or even months to make their way across the Atlantic. By 1845, though, Americans had spent three generations tirelessly driving forward: full-blown market communications, transportation, and even industrial revolutions. [00:00:30] Railroads now knit the continent together, and like a vast network of veins through the body they spread development to every corner. The telegraph allowed Americans to share their thoughts electronically and instantaneously across this vast space, nerves in the great new national brain. In this heady atmosphere of constant revolution, a rising generation of artists and intellectuals, calling themselves the Young Americans, set out to create an authentic [00:01:00] national culture to match their exceptional place in history.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
In the early 19th Century, American culture was still very much dominated by New England, especially Boston, but during the 1820s New Yorkers [00:01:30] moved their city into preeminence. A growing circle of elite writers and philanthropists called the Knickerbockers rediscovered something vital from the American experience: the vast, beautiful frontier. Though they were personally and politically conservative, Knickerbocker writers like Washington Irving in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans gave younger artists a distinctly romantic portrayal of American life. Here was a magical place of [00:02:00] perfect liberty, a clean break from history itself where man could paint the future on a fresh canvas. William Cullen Bryant was lone the political radical among them, though his poetry also used natural settings and subjects to illustrate important ideas, and Young American artists of all types followed much of the old Knickerbocker radicals’ lead.
The Young Americans were New York’s next generation of artists, intellectuals, and activists, and [00:02:30] reformers, many of whom were inspired by — and even active participants in — the Loco-Foco movement, which challenged Tammany Hall for supremacy in the Democratic Party from 1835 to 1837. Their philosophies generally came from the great classical liberals, radicals like Tom Paine and William Leggett, equal in stature to most Young Americans, and they shared a deep faith in America’s world historical destiny. A Young American might have been in either party, but their philosophy [00:03:00] was almost always some strain of Loco-Focoism.
Bryant’s Knickerbockers provided budding young artists all they needed, especially publicity and exposure. The city was a constant stream of economic, cultural, and social change, and from these sources. Evert Duyckinck, the publisher, put together his Tetractys group, a small circle of literary critics and writers whose mission was to create an authentic American national culture distinct from its European [00:03:30] parents. Novelist Cornelius Matthews claimed to have coined the term “Young America,” inspired by the waves of nationalist Republican revolutions brewing in Europe at the time: Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Ireland, with many others on the way.
Duyckinck himself played the role of canon-builder, helping emerging writers, editors, and printers network, workshop their writings, and publish. He was a progressive, modernizing Loco-Foco, who thoroughly embraced the rapidly transforming world of the late [00:04:00] Jacksonian period, a world in which people by and large ruled themselves in an endless series of individual choices and peaceful social exchanges. Duyckinck was the founding father of Young America, struck by the sublimity of free and democratic societies.
Speaker 2: The Day-Book of Life, by Evert Duyckinck. The Knickerbocker, 1840.
1. Nothing can happen in the world that may not interest the cultivated [00:04:30] mind. Even the fopperies of fashionable life have a true side and an untrue one.
2. The world is full of meaning. There is nothing really insignificant in nature, no blade grass but points as certainly to the sky as the highest pine tree.
3. The humanity of nature has not been enough dwelt upon compared with her grandeur, beauty, grace, elements indeed of the first. [00:05:00] We look upon nature according to the mood of our own minds at the moment, but she soon cherishes all that is good in us. If we have the capacity to feel sorrow in her presence, she has the power to change the sorrow through gentle melancholy into joy. We do well to imitate the miser and keep a hoard of pure gold, the heart’s best affections, to visit sometimes in the depths of the wood.
4. Nature is not enough. We [00:05:30] need men and cities. We must join in a certain way in the throng and tumult. We must retire from solitude. The wave must return with the tide or it is lost upon the shore.
5. Keep moving is the practical secret of greatness. Move not either altogether out of the current, for there is much there to help the way. The man is wrong who has not much sympathy with his times.
[00:06:00] 6. The poet will sometimes make an exception for himself, since he deals with man, not men. What has he to do with the world that he has left behind?
7. The daily existence of large cities affords an argument for the general better qualities of human nature. There is even very little jostling, and the police is an inadequate force, reaching, perhaps, every 500th man. The [00:06:30] rest take care of themselves and of one another.
8. The solitude of crowds is often said to be more solitary than lonely nature. It is not so. There is something companionable in the dullest face of the most unsocial man that meets the eye. Trees and stones are less suggestive materials. In crowds, we catch, whether we will or not, a part of the enthusiasm of the day. The mind is excited by the frequent impressions.
[00:07:00] 9. The misery and sorrow which appear in large cities and turn many away should only speak of humanity and equality, for all are equal in suffering.
10. There are some thoughts that can never be gained in the crowd, and in most instances the mind must seek in retirement for fineness and delicacy of perception. In solitude, we separate the real from the untrue and so return to the world to handle [00:07:30] its topics with more strength, to seize the heart of the subject with greater directness. The only way to respect the feelings and sensibilities of others is to gain a knowledge of ourselves. We reason of others from our own stock of ideas and feel for them in proportion to our possession of home-felt passion. Solitude by itself is chastening. To know the air is silent around us, that there is not a voice within hearing through the palpable darkness, is [00:08:00] to be conscious of an awful presence kindred to the stillness of the grave. We should come forth from retirement not unsocial misanthropists but, like the prophet of old, our very countenances radiant with benevolence to shine upon the world. Let the man then be spared and reverenced who finds his ailment in solitude, who cares more for the feast of his own thoughts than for the tables of rich citizens, who thanks God for his [00:08:30] leisure, and weaves dreams of happiness for mankind. Remember the solitude of Milton in his blindness.
11. The greater part of the world, most of men business are never alone one half hour out of the day. Is it a wonder that there is a lack of individuality in society or that so few men are even in advance of the circumstances of life?
12. The word “vulgar.” This word [00:09:00] has done a great deal toward keeping up a social prejudice against much honest, integrity, and worth in the poorest classes of society. What is low-lived is said to be vulgar, from the Latin vulgus, but this meaning has been altered by Christianity, by the improvements of society, from physical causes and the diffusion of education generally since the Romans. By “vulgar” should be understood “whatever is lax because it is untrue or opposed to [00:09:30] the laws of propriety.” It is vulgar not to speak to a man in a common dress if he can tell you something new. It is vulgar to laugh at a man when you should weep with him. There’s a vulgarity of soul as well as of manners. The highest instance of vulgarity is unmitigated contempt. Lying is extreme vulgarity. “Vulgar” is the antipode to “noble,” and the use of the latter word may throw some light on the former. “Noble” [00:10:00] is a word no longer confined to a nobleman by birth. It has descended to all classes, while the other word should’ve risen as well.
13. Asserting the truth confidently on all occasions does not needfully imply proselytism, by which I mean personal conversion to some particular tenets. The truth may be felt without the man who utters it being seen. Proselytism is a local spirit. Truth is [00:10:30] universal. One is of man, the other is of God. One may be wrong, the other will secure the right in the end.
14. Gentleness of mind is the foundation of good manners, for a man may very easily be more clownish with his tongue than with his legs after he has learned all that the dancing master can teach.
15. Some persons must be alone to do anything. They must have it all [00:11:00] to themselves. They are advocates for truth and yet loathe that anyone should join them in defending it. This is not necessarily selfish. The mind is so delicate in its perceptions that it is over-nice, so cautious of itself that it distrusts others and loves the truth it has itself sought out so well that it suspects, with the jealousy of affection, the zeal of others not to be so pure and devoted.
16. [00:11:30] The habit of criticism may easily be carried too far, though the best class of critics are the most tolerant persons. Many things must be received as they are with open hands, trustingly, confidingly, without our being aware that we are even tolerant. We must [inaudible 00:11:48] the reflex satisfaction of the wise man to be happy with the fool. They who are not sometimes satisfied without being critical are like those unhappy kings who will never eat a dish [00:12:00] for fear of getting poisoned ‘til they have somebody to taste it for them.
17. It is commonly people who are half-educated that are guilt of affectation. The clown is genuine. So are the deep scholar, the poet, and the true wit.
18. The most opposition to error is the assertion of truth without controversy. This is the Gorgon’s shield that turns all her enemies to stone.
19. [00:12:30] As we are brought up in society, it requires much art to get back to nature, to clear away prejudices, common places, and treat a subject in a natural, easy manner, not formal art but that care and study-supplied best by the cultivation of taste, which is enough of a natural faculty to preserve us from the artificial.
20. The way to be just is to honor genuineness and sincerity wherever we find it, and [00:13:00] the way to be wise is to test this habitually.
21. The pursuit of truth is like the act of swimming: you must first trust yourself to the waters to be borne up by them.
22. Sentiment is to passion what, in the intellectual faculties, fancy is to imagination.
23. The first early sunshine after rain or the rainbow are promises that after clouds, [00:13:30] joy cometh in the morning. Fear not doubts or depression. The heart is elastic and cannot be crushed. In its lowest state, the hour of death, poor humanity’s only about to put on its best garments. The religion which saves man from fear and does most for hope and love is the best, and this is the dayspring of the New Testament.
24. Sentimental people are often hypocrites, or rather [00:14:00] contradict their professions, because when the image of a vice is once brought before the mind, whether to condemn or approve, it cannot be let go without a little tampering. The only way is to flee vice altogether. Observe how naturally denunciations against scandal, for instance, are followed by a few examples of it in notorious persons. And so, the evil tongue that was a moment ago so fair-spoken is now [00:14:30] let loose.
25. The couplet of wordsmith’s ode, still by the visions blended is on his way attended, should be worn on the breast on the poor pilgrim of Earth like an amulet. It is a charm, a prestige, that calls out the finer order of nature with calm ideas of morality and elevated joy.
Anthony Comegna: If Duyckinck showed Young America’s democratic proclivities, then painter Thomas Cole displayed [00:15:00] Young America’s cautious, conservative strain. Thomas Cole was born in 1801 in Lancashire, Great Britain. After living in Philadelphia and Ohio, Thomas settled in New York City by 1825. To supplement his family’s income, he purchased a book on landscape painting and taught himself enough to make money with it. The landscape genre generally grew out of a fascination with upheaval and change throughout history and, using the land as a relative constant, artists like Cole learned how to show human transience, [00:15:30] development, and decay. Landscape was the perfect artistic form to capture America’s rapidly dissolving rustic charm, the perfect way to visually express romantic theories of history and social development that looked back to mourn what was lost and better prepare for new trials ahead.
Cole’s New York buzzed with Loco-Foco radicals and their romantic visions of an endless democratic frontier, the pivot point in human history. Cole responded [00:16:00] with a cautious and conservative politics, deeply suspicious of democracy’s supposed virtues. He was no naïve optimist. He saw individual quests for liberty and power coming into conflict everywhere as social development intensified. Democrats and Whigs, capitalists and laborers, bankers and honest workers, masters and slaves, all of them were constantly fighting, and most of the time no one was happy with the results.
His paintings did not merely reflect Loco-Foco [00:16:30] ideas, they positively contributed to the ongoing Loco-Foco movement. The Evening Post itself praised Cole’s paintings as authentically and indisputably American art. His work brings history into the present, cautioning against transformative change unmatched with proper virtue, and counseling those who favor liberty to harmonize themselves to the natural order as much as possible. He believed, like Duyckinck, that society was a good thing, [00:17:00] but Cole feared a world where power morphed in form too frequently for the virtuous defenders of liberty to match its movements. He worried that Duyckinck’s Young Americans would indulge in the same riches, vainglories, and ultimate decline marking all empires in history.
What he called the “vile Mexican War” confirmed his worst fears. Americans actually embraced the horrors of war in the path to power. Just as one season turns to the next with perfect predictability, Cole [00:17:30] fully expected American imperialism would grind his country into dust. Cole exercised more influence than almost any other 19th Century American artist. To many or perhaps most Young Americans, politics was of little importance when compared to the impact of culture and ideas. In a speech to the American Art Union — the very first free public art museum, in part established by William Cullen Bryant — Joel Headley told his audience, ” [00:18:00] Give me control of the art of a country and you may have the management of its administration.”
The Loco-Foco Young American Walt Whitman no doubt agreed. While Thomas Cole was old enough to be pessimistic by the late 1830s, Walt Whitman was a full generation younger — a properly young American, if you will — and America’s historic frontier still seemed his for the shaping. Whitman was born on May 18, 1819, in the rural-urban border town of Brooklyn. During the market [00:18:30] revolution decades, Brooklyn was perhaps the single-most radically transformed place in the country. This old Dutch town at the westernmost tip of Long Island was a hotbed of free thinking, Quakerism, and religious poetry. It was a bustling country town, increasingly influenced by its neighbor on Manhattan Island. In the days of Whitman’s youth, traveling the length of Long Island could take days and would require journeys through farms and forests, across roads and rivers, and with undeveloped beaches on all sides. [00:19:00] It was a place of fairly liberal sentiments, which fostered Whitman’s tolerant temperament and his deeply romantic respect for nature.
From an early age, Walter read William Leggett’s fiery editorials from across the river. Leggett fast became one of Whitman’s political mentors, teaching him that social means are always preferred over political means. As a fiction writer, Whitman was always a Young American, and as a journalist and editor, he was always a Loco-Foco Democrat. His [00:19:30] career in both aspects of writing flourished in the late 1830s and early ’40s. Whitman published a total of seven short stories for John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review and was a penny-a-liner for Loco-Foco Levi Slamm’s Daily Plebeian.
When the 1844 Baltimore Convention bypassed Martin Van Buren and selected slaveholder James K. Polk as the Democratic nominee for President, Whitman dutifully endorsed the ticket. By 1846, though, Texas entered the Union [00:20:00] and war seemed imminent. He began editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1846, the Mexican War a mere month away. Whitman curdled at the prospect of a war for the extension of slavery and strongly and early supported the Wilmot Proviso that proposed to ban slavery in any conquered territories. The President’s opposition to the proviso fueled the poet’s discontent with the Democratic Party, but he never lost faith in democratic society.
[00:20:30] Whitman spent the rest of his days seeking that great American literary artist who could do in text what Cole did on canvas. Young Americans believed that democracy left destiny in the people’s hands, for better or for worse, and Whitman feared that without great cultural leadership to inspire and shape that course there would be no cities in the clouds, just slavery as far as the eye could see.
The Young Americans really invented early American culture [00:21:00] as we know it. Sure, there were Puritan preachers who wrote thunderous sermons, and there were Enlightenment Era poets, advice writers, and essayists, even a few fine artists here and there, but the Young Americans were the first generation to produce giants in every field of cultural production America had to offer, canon writers like Hawthorne and Melville, poets like Whitman, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier, artists like Thomas Cole and Asher Durand. And in this generation perhaps [00:21:30] more so than most, the arts dramatically affected, even steered, most other areas of life. There we Young American lawyers, scientists, professors of every discipline, Young America politicians and Young America soldiers. There were even a few Young America actors and boxers.
This massive and influential cohort produced a national culture distinct from European antecedents and revolutionized much of our politics in the process. [00:22:00] They were by no means all Loco-Focos, much less members of the Equal Rights Party, but Young America and the country first Libertarian movement developed in tandem, often completely indistinguishable.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, [00:22:30] please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.