wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Gordon Wood

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Jefferson had come into the presidency in his 'revolution of 1800' determined to reverse the monarchizing tendencies of the Federalists; indeed, he later said his election 'was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.' Even the symbols and ceremonies of government were simplified or eliminated, and government as a social force became increasingly weaker. By the early nineteenth century, foreign immigrants immediately noticed that 'government' in America made 'no sensation.' 'It is round about you like the air,' said a startled William Sampson fresh from Ireland, 'and you cannot even feel it.' No people in the Western world ever dismantled its national government more completely than did the Americans of the early Republic. In time the delivery of the mail was the only way most citizens would know that such a government even existed.

Yet, of course, there were continued republican appeals to the natural sociability, the sympathy, and what Joel Barlow called 'the attracting force of universal love' that presumably existed in all people. In the three or four decades following the Revolution newly independent American men and women came together to form hundreds and thousands of new voluntary associations expressive of a wide array of benevolent goals—mechanics' societies, humane societies, societies for the prevention of pauperism, orphans' asylums, missionary societies, marine societies, tract societies, Bible societies, temperance associations, Sabbatarian groups, peace societies, societies for the suppression of vice and immorality, societies for the relief of poor widows, societies for the promotion of industry, indeed societies for just about anything and everything that was good and humanitarian. People cut loose from traditional social relationships, it was observed as early as 1789, were 'necessarily thrown at a considerable distance from each other, and into a very diffused state of society.' The various voluntary associations and institutions enabled them to come together in new ways and to combine their mites for charity most effectively. By the 1820s in Massachusetts alone these associations of like-minded men and women were forming at the rate of eighty-five a year.

There was nothing in the Western world quite like these hundreds of thousands of people assembling annually in their different voluntary associations and debating about everything. In other countries, said Charles Ingersoll, such 'various self-created associations' gave the authorities 'so much trouble and alarm' that they tried to prevent their formation. But because their own society was so dispersed and loose, Americans found these associations "not only harmless but beneficial.' So prevalent did these social organizations become that eventually some people like William Channing came to fear that the social principles of these organizations were threatening that 'individuality of character' that was so important to Americans and the real goal of all social action.

Yet Channing and others need not have worried. For many members soon redefined their relationship to these voluntary associations. Instead of giving their time and effort to the benevolent organizations, as in the past, many persons began giving money. The societies became less mutual associations and more fiduciary ones, and philanthropic- minded people could now belong to many voluntary societies at the same time. Money had a way of multiplying people's social relationships while at the same time attenuating them.

Many others came to believe that Christianity might be the best means of tying Americans together. All along, of course, varieties of Protestantism had been a major adhesive force for ordinary Americans, often the principal source of community and order in their lives. But the Revolution had disrupted American religion; it scattered congregations, destroyed church buildings, interrupted the training of ministers, and politicized people's thinking. The religious yearnings of common people, however, remained strong, stronger than any of the revolutionary leaders realized.

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century powerful currents of popular religious feeling flowed beneath the genteel and secular surface of public life, awaiting only the developing democratic revolution to break through the rationalistic and skeptical crust of the Enlightenment and sweep over and transform the landscape of the country. The consequences were far-reaching, not just for the mass of ordinary people but for many of the enlightened revolutionary leaders themselves, who were frightened and bewildered by this democratic revolution.