Daily Archives: June 1, 2009

The Machine Age (take one)

The period of American history known as the Machine Age– the half-century between Reconstruction and the Crash– was the era of white supremacy, what is often termed the rise of the “New Imperialism” of the European powers though also of the United States, whose experience with offshore expansionism– the latter term itself is pure euphemism, a rhetorical form of American exceptionalism recasting the realities of military force and colonization– had up until then been focused on completing the conquest of the continent. 

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The project of national consolidation, of imprinting republican political forms and free market norms on the as yet untamed terrain, was thus linked in practical geo-political terms with the entry of the United States into a world arena. Already a leading economic power, the nation sought final unification not only via the occupation of its southern states and victory in the Plains Wars, but by asserting its ability to obtain and govern colonies. If the effort undertaken was modest by the standards of Britain, which at that time controlled perhaps one sixth of the planet’s surface– it was evident that the vision of an “empire of liberty” espoused by Jefferson was not simply a grandiose phrase but a strategy. 


This effort to assume the mantle of power– to achieve some level of parity with “old Europe”–  was complicated by the virtually existential belief in American distinctiveness, a sense of destiny coded in terms of race and religion by the misconstrual of English settlement in the western hemisphere as a largely Puritan affair. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 aboard the White Lion. The first permanent settlements were established in the South, and in fact most of the colonists undertook their voyage for economic reasons. In the retrospect of mythmaking, however, the United States was the destination of a spiritual elite whose stern virtues would constitute the kernel of a nation made great by its resolution and purity of character. 

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Yet the Puritans were not enough, particularly as technological innovation accelerated in an industrialized context. If the sharp yankee trader delineated in Constance Rourke’s American Humor continued to exert an undeniable influence on national self-perception, he was morphing from a rural figure to a city “type,” one who might contain apparent contradictions that would in turn serve as the vital force galvanizing American industrial progress and propelling the nation onto the world stage. The paradoxes animating this stream-lined Jonathan– provincial innocence and a keen sense of the main chance, rustic manners and technical mastery– were rapidly being reworked. It was not that a new archetype was needed– for the development of cultures is not so simple that a pantheon of personified traits is sufficient to explain its continuities and changes–  but that new qualities were to be emphasized in order to bring forward core cultural values into an emergent socio-historical context.

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With the Redemptionist counter-revolution which extinguished Reconstruction and sentenced the United States to another century of racial violence and subjugation, citizenship retained its essential white, Christian, male identity. Those cultivated to assume its obligations and grasp its opportunities– in a word the young–  would require training. The category of the condition which was seen to describe though in fact produced them would have to be revised. All of the genius of science, particularly the nascent disciplines of psychology and sociology, would play a part in youth’s rationalization. If the American identity remained, in spite of the nation’s touted immigrant character, a birthright, if the proper subjects of modernity — those burdened with the tasks of civilizing the planet in the name of God, political liberty and untrammeled commerce– were still white male and Christian, then even so Americans were made rather than born.