restricted access 3. “What we Anglo-Americans understand by the significant word comfort,” 1821–1850
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Between 1820 and 1860 the United States became middle class.1 In some respects the middle class’s rise drove a wedge between Europe and the American republic. Middling Americans cherished the “egalitarian myth” that maintained that any man could attain independence and even prosperity through hard work. Americans contrasted this happy state with the situation of the Old World, where (they believed) entrenched privilege, superstition, and lack of available land consigned the mass of the population to poverty and its attendant vices. Protestant piety also widened the gulf between the United States and the Continent by reinvigorating anti-Catholicism. Other than as an example of the social, economic, and political blight of Roman Catholicism, nativists argued that the countries under popery’s shadow had little to offer the United States. However, in other ways—some clear, others more subtle—the growth of a middling rank of commercial farmers, clerks, storekeepers, and professionals strengthened transatlantic bonds and reinvigorated efforts to embed the United States into what one traveler called “the civilized world.”2 Middling women and men thought of themselves as civilized people, and they wished to help spread this civilization throughout the globe. For redress they turned to the law, not personal vengeance. They invested great social and personal importance to educational institutions. They believed that people, organized into groups and motivated by an optimistic Christian faith, could transform the world for the better. They saw their government as the culmination of a long historical process of uneven but inevitable progress. They exalted high culture and personal refinement , which they also understood in historical terms. All of this compelled middling Americans to understand themselves as the heirs of various European traditions. James Fenimore Cooper’s Eve Van Cortlandt gave voice to this sense of connectedness to the past when she labeled American Grand Tourists “Hajjis,” c h a p t e r t h r e e “What we Anglo-Americans understand by the significant word comfort” 1821–1850 82 Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 those who have taken “the pilgrimage to Paris, instead of Mecca; and the pilgrim must be an American, instead of a Mohommedan.”3 Europe did not represent the dead past for Americans. It was the source of fresh ideas for people who sought to transform American culture. Tocqueville observed that Americans were extremely sensitive to foreign criticism. But they could be ruthless in diagnosing their own flaws. According to Sidney George Fisher, a wellborn Philadelphia lawyer, these included poverty, vulgarity, slavery , “southernism and Yankeeism, and western barbarism, and lynch law, and mob law.” He believed that America’s flaws were so great that its best option was to reaffirm its historical relationship with England and “to feel proud of her glory and greatness.” Fisher’s diagnosis and remedy were extreme. But respectable men and women shared his conviction that Europe had much to teach Americans as they developed a civilization deserving of a place in the Atlantic community of nations. Orville Dewey, a Unitarian minister, argued that exposure to Europe gave travelers special insight into American affairs. Both sides of the Atlantic confronted the same dilemmas—“manners, national health, amusements , churches and church establishments, the Catholic religion, the cultivation of the arts, and the many and momentous questions in politics.” Americans ignored European answers to these problems at their peril.4 Brother Jonathan Comes to Europe Americans abroad before 1820 disagreed sharply on how the new nation should relate to Europe. However, they were overwhelmingly male and privileged, and that homogeneity limited the kinds of questions they asked about how the United States should relate to Europe. Those who thought of themselves as the American gentry still flocked to Europe after 1820. The South Carolina planter Henry Middleton, his future brother-in-law Joshua Francis Fisher, and the honeymooning Massachusetts couple Frederic and Charlotte Brinckerhoff Bronson were just a few of the self-styled aristocrats who made extended travels through Britain and the Continent. Sidney George Fisher praised his cousin’s travel plans in terms that English gentlemen of the seventeenth century would have understood perfectly: “To succeed in commanding attention & engaging interest, in a distinguished and brilliant circle, is to gratify no insignificant ambition & improves the possession of qualities & acquirements, with which few are gifted.” As if in mockery of these aristocratic aspirations, gentlepeople after 1820 found Europe teeming with Americans they considered their social inferiors. A companion of newlyweds Charles and Martha Amory was...


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Subject Headings

  • Americans -- Travel -- Europe -- History.
  • Europe -- Description and travel.
  • Americans -- Europe -- Ethnic identity -- History.
  • Ethnicity -- Europe -- History.
  • Europe -- Social life and customs -- 18th century.
  • Europe -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Europe -- Foreign public opinion, American.
  • Travelers' writings, American -- Europe.
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