Robert Gross, “The Minutemen and Their World” (1976) and “The Transcendentalists and Their World” (2021) – Forty five years is a long time in history! And let’s be real, a somewhat less long time in the rather slow-moving world of academic history. Robert Gross started “The Minutemen and Their World” near the high water mark of social history in the American academy. Minute studies of New England towns were in! It helped that we Yankees are meticulous record keepers. There’s a cruel parody of every historiographical school implicit in its work, no matter how generative. The American social historians never had that Hobsbawm-Thompson of their British counterparts/inspirations. You kind of got the idea they thought they were getting away with something. “We can… we can parse old tax records and not make a point about them but consider it ‘history from below’ because it’s not about famous people?!”
Anyhoo, Gross saw where the wind was blowing and he was writing just before the bicentennial, so he got to have his cake and eat it too. He could comb the finely-kept records of the Concord burghers, and tie it in to a larger political point, i.e., how did these people convince themselves to take on an Empire they were just recently pretty proud to be in on?
Truth be told there’s more burgherdom than revolution — more “world” than “Minutemen” — but honestly, that’s ok. Concord was a world on the move! You might just assume it would be anyway because it was a colony, all rough and new. But it was a hundred fifty years old by 1775! It was the first Puritan settlement away from the sight of the ocean in Massachusetts. Moreover, the Puritan fathers weren’t… well, it’s complicated, and Gross doesn’t analyze it closely. The Puritans were capitalists, some of the most important proto-capitalists. But they really didn’t seem to think a lot about the potentially socially corrosive effects of capitalism, or if they did, they thought that, I don’t know, prayer and surveillance could fix it?
I was going to say the Puritans weren’t big “opportunity people,” and maybe that is right- their capitalism was the frowny Weberian kind, where you thank your stern god for his sufficiency. They were “harmony people.” They wanted everyone on the same page. They wanted to do a Heaven LARP until god pulled the plug on this whole “material reality” farce. What did that mean a century and a half on? It meant Concord didn’t know how they were going to keep sons on the farm. Land was expensive and not super great to begin with. Open lands in places we don’t think of now as “open land” — Worcester County! Vermont! — beckoned. Social control was strict in Concord and people got in big theological pissing contests. They were definitely better off than they’d likely be in Britain. But they weren’t as well off as they’d like.
A general rise of individualism connects “The Minutemen and Their World” and the book released forty five years later, “The Transcendentalists and Their World.” The Minutemen beat the British! That was unexpected! It helps that the British used relative kid gloves on them, as fellow white English-speaking Protestants. About fifty years later, Concord is going pretty well after recovering from the time of troubles around 1812, but still needs to figure out what exactly it’s for, other than a springboard to places west. Industrialization is creeping in, and going past the traditional mechanic-operator-owned shops to big mills worked by a proletariat. Lowell is in full swing and often wants to steal the courthouse — it was a good thing to have the county courthouse in your town back then — from Concord, which the townsfolk fend off with their establishment political muscle. Even as Puritanism receded, the established political powers of New England sought harmony and order over most other social considerations.
How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Andy? Andy Jackson, that is. Jackson never won Massachusetts, or came close (New Hampshire, on the other hand…). But Jacksonian politics shattered New England’s elite-run politics. In some places, including Concord, it took the form of Anti-Masonic politics. A lot of big shots in Concord (and elsewhere, including a certain Tennessean President) were Freemasons, so inchoate populism streamed that way (a similar dynamic prevailed with the Know-Nothings a generation later). Even where Jackson’s enemies prevailed, they had to learn to play the game on something like his terms, appealing to the populace, modifying old laws, and in general learning to act in a master-race-democracy polity rather than an (also racist) aristocratic-republican one. Say what you will, but he put himself at the head of a political shift that knew what time it was.
What did all that mean for Concord and the Transcendentalists? Well… vibes, I guess? A general effort to figure out a society where there was — along with everything else — a pretty unprecedented degree of individual opportunity? I can hear people flinching away from that. I know! Most people didn’t have a lot of opportunity. I know that “opportunity” is one of those sacred words like “courage” (we don’t want to say Andrew Jackson had that, because it’s sacred and he was bad, but…). But… maybe it shouldn’t be? Maybe it’s purely fucking circumstantial? Maybe people shouldn’t need a fairy godmother of opportunity to bless them to have a decent life? And every other empire on earth had similar structures keeping out-groups from accessing the fairy godmother, and a smaller in-group. That’s all I’m saying about America. It figured out how to do a big in-group. Slavery and the destruction and dispossession of indigenous people was a prerequisite for it. I’m not saying it was great.
And, in many respects, the Transcendentalists became the poets and philosophers of that society and its opportunities. There were others, and vast portions of that society — anyone south of New York, basically — had nothing good to say about Emerson, Thoreau, or their milieu. But, like Yankees playing the Jacksonian politics game, eventually, Southrons learned to play the Emersonian personhood game. Emerson, for his part, learned it by navigating between various factions in and around Concord. There’s the elitism of the high toned Whigs, but spiritualized- anyone could be a great soul, just like Jacksonian Democracy promised (to whites). Emerson’s Concord was only a few years out from the Unitarians basically hijacking the Massachusetts religious establishment, and a lot of Emerson’s idea of man’s relationship to the spiritual world came from them… but the Trinitarians (which eventually became Congregationalists), who held to something like the orthodox New England faith, showed how emotional appeals could actually touch people, in the way that chilly Unitarian reasonability couldn’t, so Emerson learned to take from that, too. He talked reform and was at least somewhat anti-slavery… but the real reform, as far as he was concerned, was realizing you are, in fact, fantastic, if only you realize it, the original notionally-progressive self-help hack.
Honestly, I see more of this in Emerson than European romanticism, but what do I know? It surprises me that a curmudgeon like Carlyle would hang with this dude, but Emerson could be a mean prick too, and you gotta figure Carlyle wouldn’t look the gift horse of an American publicist in the mouth… people in the expanding south and west might have seen Emerson’s irreligion and light-abolitionism as a threat (you have to figure they just thought Thoreau was a piker and fake), but they embraced something of his anything goes — except politics! which are stupid — ethos, the idea that the individual is the basis of all good, not necessarily because said individual is the ol’ image-and-likeness, but not not because of that, either! Because Emerson copped more attitudes than he actually staked claims, it’s possible to integrate him into all kinds of projects of personal fulfillment. The South would soon be so thoroughly dominated by slaver politics that you couldn’t afford to praise Emerson for generations hence, but again- Jackson never got close to winning Massachusetts, either.
Like the Minutemen book, the Transcendentalists book is more “world” than the subjects, and honestly, that’s a good thing. As you can probably tell I am not a fan of the Transcendentalists. It’s hard out there, for an appreciator of New England’s intellectual heritage who doesn’t actually like a lot of New England thinkers! Gross, forty-five years into a tenured career, sees it all for the good. It probably was, for him. Anyway! This was respectable social history with a good intellectual soupçon. ****/****’