We Were Builders Once, and Strong

Earlier this year I published a series of notes under the title “On Cultures That Build.” The thesis of that piece (the most popular thing I have written for any publication this year) was that both innovation and institutional capacity are at least partially a product of social training and cultural experience. Americans were once accustomed to solving problems themselvesless as rugged individuals, than as rugged communitarians. When a novel problem occurred, they would gather together with others affected, and would together take action to resolve the problem before them. This lived experience of jointly solving novel problems has largely disappeared from American life. Americans have spent several generations the subject of bureaucratic management, and are rarely given real responsibility for their own affairs. The “Karen” like impulse of contemporary life is to defer to experts; when a vexing problem disturbs, the default solution is an appeal to management. The problem with all this: managers come from the same stultified society as the managed. Once they attain power they realize they have no more experience building problem-solving institutions than the rest of us. 

In that essay I described 19th century America as an example of a “culture that built.” I was interested to find several passages illustrating this point in my first big-read of the month, James McPherson’s famous history of the American Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom. In his stage-setting chapter that sets the book up, McPherson narrates the wonders of the “American System of Manufactures” and the various factors that made it possible. These included a demand for labor that outstripped supply, America’s plentiful natural resource endowment, and the strong middle class demand for a “variety of ready-made consumer goods at reasonable prices.” But McPherson also offers a cultural explanation for American entrepreneurial vitality. His description of antebellum culture echoes my earlier points:

A fourth reason offered by British observers to explain American economic efficiency was an educational system that had produced widespread literacy and “adaptative versatility” among American workers. By contrast a British workman trained by long apprenticeship “in the trade” rather than in schools lacked “the ductility of mind and the readiness of apprehension for a new thing” and was “unwilling to change the methods which he has been used to,” according to an English manufacturer. The craft apprenticeship system was breaking down in the United States, where most children in the Northeast went to school until age fourteen or fifteen. “Educated up to a far higher standard than those of a much superior social grade in the Old World . . . every [American] workman seems to be continually devising some new thing to assist him in his work, and there is a strong desire . . . to be ‘posted up’ in every new improvement.”

This was perhaps putting it a bit strongly. But many American technological innovations were indeed contributed by workers themselves. Elias Howe, a journeyman machinist in Boston who invented a sewing machine, was one of many examples. This was what contemporaries meant when they spoke of Yankee ingenuity. They used “Yankee” in all three senses of the word: Americans; residents of northern states in particular; and New Englanders especially. Of 143 important inventions patented in the United States from 1790 to 1860, 93 percent came out of the free states and nearly half from New England alone—more than twice that region’s proportion of the free population. Much of the machine-tool industry and most of the factories with the most advanced forms of the American system of manufactures were located in New England. An An Argentine visitor to the United States in 1847 reported that New England migrants to other regions had carried “to the rest of the Union the… moral and intellectual aptitude [and]… manual aptitude which makes an American a walking workshop… The great colonial and railroad enterprises, the banks, and the corporations are founded and developed by them.” 

The connection made by British observers between Yankee “adaptative versatility” and education was accurate. New England led the world in educational facilities and literacy at midcentury. More than 95 percent of its adults could read and write; three-fourths of the children aged five to nineteen were enrolled in school, which they attended for an average of six months a year. The rest of the North was not far behind. The South lagged with only 80 percent of its white population literate and one-third of the white children enrolled in school for an average of three months a year. The slaves, of course, did not attend school and only about one-tenth of them could read and write. Even counting the slaves, nearly four-fifths of the American population was literate in the 1850s, compared with two-thirds in Britain and northwest Europe and one-fourth in southern and eastern Europe. Counting only the free population, the literacy rate of 90 percent in the United States was equaled only by Sweden and Denmark. 

…Americans in the mid-nineteenth century could point to plenty of examples, real as well as mythical, of self-made men who by dint of “industry, prudence, perseverance, and good economy” had risen “to competence, and then to affluence.” With the election of Abraham Lincoln they could point to one who had risen from a log cabin to the White House. “I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son!” Lincoln told an audience at New Haven in 1860. But in the free states a man knows that “he can better his condition . . . there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer.” “Wage slave” was a contradiction in terms, said Lincoln. “The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.” If a man “continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” The “free labor system,” concluded Lincoln, “opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” It was precisely the lack of this hope, energy, and progress in the slave South that made the United States a House Divided. 

However idealized Lincoln’s version of the American Dream may have been, this ideology of upward mobility mitigated class consciousness and conflict in the United States. “There is not a working boy of average ability in the New England States, at least,” observed a visiting British industrialist in 1854, “who has not an idea of some mechanical invention or improvement in manufactures, by which, in good time, he hopes to better his position, or rise to fortune and social distinction.” A Cincinnati newspaper reported in 1860 that “of all the multitude of young men engaged in various employments of this city, there is not one who does not desire, and even confidently expect, to become rich.” The Gospel of Success produced an outpouring of self-improvement literature advising young men how to get ahead. 

This imparted a dynamism to American life, but also a frenetic pace and acquisitive materialism that repelled some Europeans and troubled many Americans. Whigs and Republicans supported all kinds of “improvements” to promote economic growth and upward mobility—”internal improvements” in the form of roads, canals, railroads, and the like; tariffs to protect American industry and labor from low-wage foreign competition; a centralized, rationalized banking system. Many of them endorsed the temperance crusade, which sobered up the American population to the extent of reducing the per capita adult consumption of liquor from the equivalent of seven gallons of 200-proof alcohol annually in the 1820s to less than two gallons by the 1850s. During the same years the per capita consumption of coffee and tea doubled. Whigs also supported public schools as the great lever of upward mobility. Common schools, said New York’s Whig Governor William H. Seward, were “the great levelling institutions of the age… not by levelling all to the condition of the base, but by elevating all to the association of the wise and good.” Horace Mann believed that education “does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents their being poor.”1


James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 30-32, 40-41.

Several things can be drawn from this account. Few of the young men with some “idea of some mechanical invention or improvement in manufactures” actually produced anything of note. But streams do not rise higher than the source. Flashes of true brilliance—be it in building new mechanical contraptions or strong civic institutions—shine against background of millions of smaller, more modest achievements. 

 This was the South’s great flaw. In those days. the intellectual centers of the South were the Tidewater districts of South Carolina and Virginia. There public life was dominated by an insecure nobility: slavers in a world that condemned slavery, aristocrats in a nation tearing down all vestiges of aristocracy, and planters in soils long exhausted by past planting. Bolder souls had left to chase fortune in the frontiers of Texas or Tennessee, but these men clung to their known and shrinking world. Theirs was not a culture that built. It was a culture preoccupied with preservation. If Yankees were inspired by moral improvement, Tidewater aristocrats cared most for preserving honor; if Yankees sought to remold the earth, the Tidewater lords sought to preserve their precarious social order. They celebrated old names, old families, and old distinctions. Disdainful of labor and distrusting of even the whites beneath them, these families created a culture apart. Their social scene was both brilliant and stagnant, violent yet timid, a society well fit to nurture the artist, the philosopher, or the soldier, but of little use to the builder.2 This could be seen in the numbers:


A breathtakingly well painted description of this class and the fears that haunted it is found in William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 7-89 and Freehling, Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 37-119. Freehling is careful to describe the differences in the world view of the Virginia and Carolina tidewater aristocracies in ibid., 27-35, 121-144, 162-178. For what it is worth, if I only get the books of 20 authors with me on a deserted island, William Freehling will be among them. He is that good.

Among antebellum men prominent enough to be later chronicled in the Dictionary of American Biography, the military profession claimed twice the percentage of southerners as northerners, while the ratio was reversed for men distinguished in literature, art, medicine, and education. In business the proportion of Yankees was three times as great, and among engineers and inventors it was six times as large. Nearly twice the percentage of northern youth attended school. Almost half of the southern people (including slaves) were illiterate, compared to 6 percent of residents of free states. 

Many conservative southerners scoffed at the Yankee faith in education. The Southern Review asked: “Is this the way to produce producers? To make every child in the state a literary character would not be a good qualification for those who must live by manual labor.” The South, replied Massachusetts clergyman Theodore Parker in 1854, was “the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce… to our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community.” Yankees and Southrons could no more mix than oil and water, agreed Savannah lawyer and planter Charles C. Jones, Jr. They “have been so entirely separated by climate, by morals, by religion, and by estimates so totally opposite of all that constitutes honor, truth, and manliness, that they cannot longer exist under the same government.”3


McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 53.

All of this would have consequences when the two sides went to war. Consider this brief example of Yankee ingenuity:

The accumulation of supplies at Manassas and the maintenance of the vulnerable single-track line that linked Pope to his base had been the work of Herman Haupt, the war’s wizard of railroading. The brusque, no-nonsense Haupt was chief of construction and transportation for the U.S. Military Rail Roads in Virginia. He had brought order out of chaos in train movements. He had rebuilt destroyed bridges in record time. His greatest achievement had been the construction from green logs and saplings of a trestle 80 feet high and 400 feet long with unskilled soldier labor in less than two weeks. After looking at this bridge, Lincoln said: “I have seen the most remarkable structure that human eyes ever rested upon. That man, Haupt, has built a bridge… over which loaded trains are running every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks.” Haupt developed prefabricated parts for bridges and organized the first of the Union construction corps that performed prodigies of railroad and bridge building in the next three years. Their motto, like that of their Seabee descendants in World War II, might have been: “The difficult we can do immediately; the impossible will take a little longer.” As an awed contraband put it, “the Yankees can build bridges quicker than the Rebs can burn them down.4


McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 564.

The Southern officer corps had more able tacticians than the North did at wars start; but in the realm of engineering, logistics, and institutional capacity, the North clearly had an advantage. Perhaps the most interesting example of this comes not from the realm of engineering and manufactures, but the social institutions invented during the war to keep the war machine running. One of the clearest case studies of what it means to have a “culture that builds” can be seen in the story of the United States Sanitary Commission:

Similar experiences befell their northern sisters who, already more emancipated when the war began, threw themselves into the fray with equal energy and in greater numbers. The principal vehicle for their activity was the United States Sanitary Commission. This powerful organization, the largest voluntary association yet formed in a country noted for such enterprises, grew from a fusion of local soldiers’ aid societies that had sprung up within days of the firing on Sumter.bWomen took the lead in forming these associations, drawing upon their sense of commitment and previous experience in societies advocating the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, temperance, education, missions, and the like. 

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to brave male derision to earn an M.D. (1849), took the lead in organizing a meeting of three thousand women at Cooper Institute in New York on April 29, 1861. Several prominent men also participated in this meeting, which formed the Women’s Central Association for Relief to coordinate the work of numerous smaller associations. The initial task of the W.C.A.R. was to establish a training program for nurses—the first such venture in the United States. The W.C.A.R. also became the nucleus of the United States Sanitary Commission. 

The “Sanitary,” as it came to be called, was inspired by the example of the British Sanitary Commission in the Crimean War. Filth and primitive sanitation had bred disease and infections that had decimated the Allied armies in the Crimea and provoked a reformist response in Britain. A number of American medical men and women wanted to organize a similar commission to alleviate such problems in the Union army. On May 15 a delegation of distinguished physicians (all men) headed by Henry Bellows, a prominent Unitarian clergyman interested in medical problems, traveled to Washington as representatives of the W.C.A.R. and affiliated organizations. This delegation encountered opposition at first from the Army Medical Bureau, whose head (the surgeon general) was an aging veteran of forty-three years in the regular army who wanted no interference by busybody civilians. He also looked with skepticism upon the prospect of female nurses. The delegation went over his head to talk with Secretary of War Cameron and with the president. At first Lincoln could see little use for a civilian auxiliary to the Medical Bureau, referring to such as a “fifth wheel to the coach.” But he acquiesced nevertheless, and on June 13 signed the order creating the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The Commission’s official powers were investigatory and advisory only. But the decentralized, do-it-yourself nature of northern mobilization in 1861 offered an opportunity for a voluntary association to create its own powers. With Bellows as president and the talented Frederick Law Olmsted as executive secretary, the Sanitary did precisely that. It enlisted physicians and other prominent citizens as officers of local affiliates. Seven thousand locals dotted the North by 1863. The national officers and most of the five hundred paid agents of the Commission were men; most of the tens of thousands of volunteer workers were women. They held bazaars and “Sanitary Fairs” to raise money. They sent bandages, medicine, clothing, food, and volunteer nurses to army camps and hospitals. They provided meals and lodging to furloughed soldiers going and coming from the front. Because of the close ties between Commission leaders and the citizen volunteers who became officers of regiments, the Sanitary helped shape the hygienic conditions of army camps despite the continuing coldness of the Army Medical Bureau. “Sanitary inspectors” from the Commission instructed soldiers in proper camp drainage, placement of latrines, water supply, and cooking. Many soldiers paid little attention, and suffered the consequences. Others benefited by improved health from following this advice. 

The Sanitary won popularity with soldiers and influence with congressmen. By the winter of 1861-62 it had become a power in national politics. It decided to use this power to attack the Medical Bureau’s seniority system which kept young, progressive surgeons down and left the Bureau in charge of men like Surgeon-General Clement A. Finley whose thinking was geared to the somnolent bureaucracy of a 16,000-man peacetime army. 

“It is criminal weakness to intrust such responsibilities as those resting on the surgeon-general to a self-satisfied, supercilious, bigoted blockhead, merely because he is the oldest of the old mess-room doctors of the frontier-guard of the country,” wrote Commission secretary Olmsted in a private letter. “He knows nothing, and does nothing, and is capable of knowing nothing and doing nothing but quibble about matters of form and precedent.” 

Commission president Bellows drafted a bill to enable Lincoln to bypass the seniority system and promote younger men to top positions in the Medical Bureau. Such legislation, said Bellows, “would lay on the shelf all the venerable do-nothings and senile obstructives that now vex the health and embarrass the safety of our troops.” The army medical establishment fought back against “sensation preachers, village doctors, and strong-minded women” of the Commission. But the bill passed on April 18, 1862. It not only suspended the seniority system but also gave the surgeon general authority to appoint eight medical inspectors with power to institute reforms in army procedures. Lincoln immediately appointed the Sanitary’s candidate as the new surgeon general: thirty-three-year old William Hammond, a progressive, energetic, strong-willed army surgeon. 

Hammond’s appointment marked the end of an adversarial relationship between the army and the Commission, and the beginning of an extraordinarily productive partnership between public and private medical enterprise. The army turned over several passenger steamers to the Commission, which fitted them up as hospital ships staffed with volunteer nurses for evacuation of wounded from the Peninsula to general hospitals in Washington and New York. The Commission had already proved the value of such a policy by chartering its own hospital boats to evacuate wounded men from Shiloh. The Sanitary also pioneered in the development of hospital trains with specially fitted cars for rail transport of wounded. Surgeon-General Hammond was so impressed by the Sanitary Commission nurses who staffed the hospital ships that he issued an order in July 1862 requiring at least one-third of the army nurses in general hospitals to be women. 

As early as April 1861 the venerable reformer of insane asylums, Dorothea Dix, had been named “Superintendent of Female Nurses” with rather vaguely defined powers. An assertive individualist whose long suit was not administrative ability, Dix worked in uneasy cooperation with the Sanitary Commission to recruit nurses. By the end of the war more than three thousand northern women had served as paid army nurses. In addition, several thousand women continued to work as volunteers and as salaried agents of the Sanitary Commission. 

These were not the only means by which northern women and men performed medical services in the war. Some worked for other volunteer agencies such as the Western Sanitary Commission (separate from the U.S.S.C.) in the trans-Mississippi theater, or the Christian Commission, founded by YMCA leaders in November 1861 to provide blankets, clothing, books, and physical as well as spiritual nurture to Union soldiers. And some northern women who earned fame as nurses operated pretty much on their own. One of these was Clara Barton, a forty-year old spinster working as a clerk in the patent office when the war broke out. She became a one-woman soldiers’ aid society, gathering medicines and supplies and turning up on several battlefields or at field hospitals to comfort the wounded and goad careless or indifferent surgeons. Barton’s friendship with influential congressmen helped bring political pressure to bear for reforms in army medicine. Her wartime experiences motivated her postwar crusade for American affiliation with the international Red Cross.5


ibid., 533-36.

Points to draw out from McPherson’s account: the outbreak of war was met with a flurry of Northern bottom-up institution building. In the case of the Sanitary, these associations were built by women whose past experience with institution building primed them to spring into action in 1861, and whose networks were broad enough to ensure that coordination between hundreds of smaller associations was possible. The associations were not simply signalling or fundraising devices; most were not dependent on professional activists. They ended up changing how the federal government did things by demonstrating how to do these things better through the programs they created. Though there was significant resistance in the Army, the federal government remained flexible enough to learn lessons from outsiders, committed enough to improvement to defeat the vested interests that opposed outside influence, and was fully capable of restructuring its own institutions to accomplish this aim when the circumstance demanded it. 

This is what a healthy building culture looks like. The Southrons did not have it, and partially lost their war because of it. America grew strong in their loss: the Yankee culture of building came out of the war triumphant, and those who won the war would go on to build the country we live in today. 

 We were builders once, and strong. May we once again be so. 

If this post on American institutions and culture caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem:”On Cultures That Build,” “A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” “Pining for Democracy,” “Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History,” and “Institutions, Instruments, and the Innovator’s Dilemma.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

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Contrast the description of the 19th c. US education system with the contemporary one. Nowadays we tend to think of the Education system as stomping creativity flat by training kids to guess the teacher's answer and deal with all problems by whining at the bureaucracy.

So I guess the US education system actually worked before Rockefeller got a hold of it.

The problem with higher education today is it is rotten. You yourself has written about that. Also, how does Germany manage to maintain their industrial base with their greater emphasis on vocational training?

The historical perspective contrasting the North and the South and the US and Britain seems like the narcissism of small differences to be honest.

Reminds me of how when I looked into assertations of high White murder rates in the Southern US, due to the "Southern Culture of Honor", that turned out to probably translate into a present day murder rate that's at most 2x the Northern states, roughly equalled by the Western states, equalled by a number o EU states and lower than virtually every US non-White minority (Hispanics, native Americans, African-Americans)… A big deal of a very small difference in the global perspective and even within the .

Differences between regional cultures within English speaking nations tend to be overblown – "American nations" and "Albion's Seed" differences probably don't really matter at all.

Seems like typical Conservative mythmaking (putting down what is much more commonly due to economics and broad regional trends down to fine differences in national characters and "our national story"). Fine I guess when the goal is national unity and the story supports that, but when it comes to anti-national unity rhetoric that encourages a divisive vaunting of "Yankees" over other Americans and deepens an already malodorous trend for the Northern US states to scowl at the Southern states in displeasure and contempt (and to indulge in fantasies that they were just free of those people and their wholly "bad" traditions, all would be well), seems pretty bad for the US.

Good post, both this one and your original one that it refers to, but I do take some issue with the manner in which you elide "jointly solving novel problems" and "a culture that builds" as though they are one and the same. They are not.

There's a lot of talk, on varying modes on both the left and the right (moreso on the right 30 years ago, moreso on the left now), about how various problems need to be solved by dismantling, deconstructing, decentering, and so on, various institutions, ideas, and people. This is frequently followed up by a statement that we will build something better in its place or that better actors will step in, of course, but it is rare that the effort is ever actually put in to do something, and when we do get something as a replacement, it is frequently at most stylistically different, and often substantively worse. "Problem-solving" isn't the same as "building", particularly if those problems are ill-defined, vague social, moral, or political issues.

That's not how I read it. Surely this education was far worse than what we have today (if not, I have some questions…). These gains aren't because it was an objectively great educational system, rather it was the difference between having no education and any at all.