essays

Mar 1, 1981

Liberalism: The Seedbed of American Culture

“History [was] a westward moving caravan, a wagon train in which political, military, and cultural greatness were linked together and freedom provided the fuel.”

Joseph J. Ellis
Mount Holyoke College

“Culture and Capitalism in Pre-Revolutionary America.” American Quarterly (1980):169–186.

American colonists of the mid-eighteenth century prophesized euphorically about the imminent cultural greatness of their New World. America was to be a New Athens, the ideal environment for the flowering of arts and sciences. In 1726 Bishop Berkeley expressed this conviction in “verses on the Prospects of Planting Arts and Learning in America.”

This optimism could not have been based on past or current achievements; thus its greatness lay ahead. Colonial Americans were well aware that they lived on a legacy of civilization inherited from England. “Pre-Revolutionary America was a provincial society whose leading members aped the manners of the English aristocracy.”

Why did such optimism about their cultural destiny dominate the American colonists outlook?

Professor Ellis points out the explosive rates of social and economic growth in eighteenth-century America: the population increased 3% a year and the wealth of the colonies rose steadily. By the eve of the Revolution Americans had a higher standard of living than any European country.

Most commentators on the arts presumed high culture was permanently linked to social and economic development; thus the direction and pace of that development is significant in understanding the assertion of America’s predestined greatness. “History was like a westward moving caravan, a wagon train in which political, military, and cultural greatness were linked together and freedom provided the fuel.” Trade and commerce were the engines of progress.

Beyond the demographic and economic evidence, new and more liberal attitudes towards authority and personal freedom were crystallizing. The essence of the liberal idea was that if all artificial restraints and regulations imposed on human activity were removed, the result would not be chaos but progress and harmony. Moreover, this liberal vision anticipated that religious and political health, along with the economic and cultural productivity of such a society would increase dramatically.

These liberal currents on both sodes of the Atlantic were derived from such Whig literature as Hume’s Essays, Trenchard’s and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters (1720s), and Shaftesbury’s Characteristics. These Whig liberals “linked artistic creativity and economic productivity by making them both natural consequences of liberal political condition.” Liberty was the precondition of a healthy culture.

These emerging liberal ideas and attitudes which we now recognize as essential for the triumph of capitalism were originally believed to be “all-purpose agents,” capable of liberating religion, politics, trade, and the arts from past constrictions. Literate Americans like Franklin, Stiles, and Trumbell were familiar with the English Whig writings and transmitted “the spirit of freedom” to the American colonists, thereby creating liberal expectations in culture and polity. Artistic creativity and economic productivity, culture and capitalism, were expected to flourish together in the free and stimulating conditions of the American marketplace. Needless to say, comments Ellis, the members of the revolutionary generation were in for a huge disappointment as to any cultural “Golden Age.”

Key articles which explore the ferment and creativity of “liberal” or modern attitudes in early America are: Joyce Appleby, “Liberalism and the American Revolution.” New England Quarterly 49(1976):3–26; and Michael Zuckerman, “The Fabrication of Identity in Early America.” William and Mary Quarterly 34(1973):183–212.