Newberry Library Bulletin, December 1960
By Ray Allen Billington
The working historian and the collector usually view books differently,for each has his set of values. The collector may be primarily interested in rarity and condition; his prize possession is apt to be the uncut volume in original boards, so rare that no other copy is known. The significance of its contents need not be his major concern. The historian, on the other hand, is generally little moved by a book’s appearance or scarcity, and is deeply interested only in its contribution to human knowledge. He views books functionally; they are usable objects important only for what they tell him of the past. He finds the superbly preserved early Kentucky imprint of little interest if its pages are only a reprint of the standard catechism, but will grow ecstatic over a tattered copy of a comparatively common book which contains a fine contemporary description of the Kentucky community in which it was printed.
In the light of these standards, does the collection of Western Americana assembled by Everett D. Graff, 375 volumes of which have recently been presented to the Newberry Library, have any appeal to the professional historian? The answer a resounding yes-can be appreciated only by those aware of the relative scarcity of source materials dealing with the history of America’s westward-moving frontier, as well as of Mr. Graff’s standard of collecting: the books truly significant in their revelation of western American history, in the finest possible copies.
Even those essential manuscript materials-government documents, journals of explorers and soldiers, ledgers of trading companies, and the like-preserved in national and state archives tell only a part of the story of the American West. No historian would think of studying the Powder River War without consulting the extensive military manuscripts in the National Archives, or the fur trading companies that operated along the Missouri River without utilizing the rich documentary resources of the Missouri Historical Society. He will also have recourse, however, to the extensive printed record of frontier history bequeathed to him by the men and women who knew the pioneering experience.
This printed legacy may take many forms: reminiscences and memoirs by frontiersmen, local histories, and diaries from manuscripts no longer extant; newspapers, magazines, broadsides, and town directories; the reports of social, religious, or financial organizations, and a legion more. For the most part, especially in pioneer America, these were poorly printed, in small editions, frequently on wretched paper, and little care was taken to preserve them. No wonder that they have become exceedingly rare. The collector who has sought out these essential documents, or encouraged others to do so, and then helped to preserve them has played a vital role in scholarship. Comparatively few libraries can afford today’s high prices for Western Americana; the collector who gathers them and ultimately makes them available to the scholar appreciably increases the latter’s tools. Almost all the great libraries in western history in the United States began as private collections: the Bancroft Library of Hubert H. Bancroft; the Henry E. Huntington Library; William Robertson Coe’s collection, now at Yale University; the George Lyman Draper Collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Edward E. Ayer’s books and manuscripts, already at the Newberry.
The skill and dedication of such collectors has given historians of the American West a body of priceless source material. Without such libraries the history of our country’s settlement could never be written nor its heritage understood; their books broaden our understanding and deepen our appreciation of the pioneers who carried American civilization across the continent. The Newberry Library, already rich by virtue of the Ayer Collection, joins the very front rank among depositories specializing in western history with the addition of Mr. Graff’s gift.
The immeasurable value of such collections to the historian can perhaps be demonstrated by one concrete (if personal) example. My own current interest is the validity of the so-called “frontier hypothesis,” first enunciated by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, which holds that many of the traits that distinguish Americans from Europeans originated during the three centuries required to settle the continent. In the repeated rebirth of society occasioned by the constant movement westward, Turner maintained, certain characteristics and institutions were evolved suited to the primitive environment that gave them birth. These included mobility, wastefulness, inventiveness, optimism, materialism, anti-intellectualism, and individualism, all characteristic of the typical pioneer; the frontiering process accentuated his democratic impulses, deepened his hatred of class distinctions, and intensified his nationalism. Turner believed that this “Americanization” did not end with the passing of the frontier about 1890, but continued in modified form down to the present. Americans, he insisted, differ from other peoples of the world partly because their society evolved in a frontier setting.
If this thesis is to be tested, it must be shown: 1) that the uniqueness of American traits and institutions is recognizable to non-Americans; 2) that these traits and institutions were peculiarly apparent in the newer societies of the frontier; and 3) that they were traceable to the frontiering process. How can these points be proven? One obvious approach was astudy of the observations of European travelers to the United States, especially the western settlements in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. All these visitors were avidly interested in the lusty new Republic taking shape beyond the seas, most were violently prejudiced for or against its democratic institutions, and many were peculiarly sensitive to any differences that distinguished the new land from their own. Do these travel books reveal that visitors to America’s shores during the nation’s formative period recognize the institutional and personal differences postulated by the “frontier hypothesis?” Did these differences appear in exaggerated form in the western settlements, where the “Americanization” process was most influential?
At this point I found the Graff Collection extraordinarily helpful, for it contains a surprisingly large number of volumes by travelers who visited the West. By rough count the 375 books already presented to the Newberry Library include fifty-nine such travel accounts, twelve volumes of reminiscences or memoirs by Westerners, sixteen guide books to the West, and eight directories of western towns and cities, all of which contain information on the state of frontier society. Merely to thumb through the cataloger’s slips is to realize the rare treasures made available to historians by Mr. Graff’s gift. Sprinkled through them are such notations as “no copy at auction since 1920,” “only three copies known,” “hitherto unrecorded imprint and press,” “apparently unique,” “three other copies located,” “presentation copy from author, inscribed,” and “only known copy.” This is rare fare indeed for the historian’s diet.
And rich fare as well, for the books have proven as valuable in content as alluring in scarcity. A small volume could easily be written on the uniqueness of western traits and institutions as seen through their pages. The travelers generally observed the characteristics postulated in the “frontier hypothesis;” over and over again they remarked on the restlessness and wastefulness of the pioneers, their materialism and scorn of culture, their nationalism and individualism. But the aspect of frontier thought that most impressed visitors from abroad was the complete democracy and the virtual lack of class distinction in western society. I shall illustrate the usefulness of the Graff Collection to work like my own with a more extended discussion of travelers’ observations on this one point, the absence of class stratification in the frontier social order.
That the fluid state of western society should captivate visitors was natural, for nearly all came from lands where tradition ruled and each man accepted his station in life without question. To men from such a background, the free-and- easy democracy of the frontier was a source of constant amazement. “The inhabitants,” one wrote as he journeyed through the West, “have a spirit of independence, and will brook no superiority…Nor is this disposition confined to one rank; it pervades the whole and is probably the best guarantee of the continuance of the liberty and independence of the country.”* (* I have quoted so liberally in writing this article, from so many books, that I feel it a kindness to the reader not to burden him with what would be excessive citation. Most of the books I have used are in the portion of the Graff Collection already presented to the Newberry Library, but a few are from that part of the Collection which still remains in Winnetka.) In western communities, it was reported, no one asked of a newcomer, “Who is he?” Instead they inquired, “What can he do?” This alone mattered in a land where progress was more important than pedigree.
Some of the more thoughtful travelers sought to explain this universal attitude toward human equality. Many found an explanation in the lack of hereditary traditions and distinctions. “Those settled habits of society,” observed an English visitor to Ohio in 1797, “which are to be found in even every village in my own country, where a long residence in a place, and a descendance from a train of old-established ancestors, induces man to go on in the old jog-trot way of his forefathers. Here they are more of a speculative and enterprising turn.” A few years later another recorded his belief that “there is no people, probably in the world, who are so ready to make experiments respecting social relations and domestic arrangements, as those of the western country,-none who are so little fettered by established habits, or who are less disposed to consider hereditary prejudices and heirlooms which cannot be parted with.” Unrestrained by the dead hand of tradition, visitors agreed, the American pioneers were free to adopt those democratic practices that suited their fancy.
Many frontiersmen with whom the travelers talked believed that the lack of hereditary restraints was a prominent reason for the social mobility that existed in the West. One Westerner, after listening to an Englishman remonstrate against the lack of forms and ceremony in American life, stoutly answered: “Yes, that may be quite necessary in England, in order to overawe a parcel of ignorant creatures, who have no share in making the laws; but with us a man’s a man, whether he have a silk gown on him or not. You see, we have done with wiggery of all kinds; and if one of our judges were to wear such an appendage, he’d be taken for a merry-andrew, and the court would become a kind of show-box-instead of such arrangements producing with us solemnity they would produce nothing but laughter and the greatest possible irregularity.”
As important as the lack of traditionalism in explaining the relative fluidity of frontier society, foreign travelers agreed, was the ease with which men of small capital could climb. Unrestrained by a rigid social structure inherited from the past, and with ready access to wealth in the form of cheap land and virgin natural resources, men were free to rise in society to the limit of their own capacities. Thus the frontier was being transformed vertically at the same time that it was being extended horizontally into new areas.
Visitors from abroad recorded instance after instance in which young men had seized upon the limitless opportunity afforded by cheap lands to start up the social ladder. A traveler in Ohio in 1811 met a newcomer who had arrived from Virginia only a short time before with a bride and no capital. This enterprising pioneer had already purchased one hundred acres of good farmland on credit at two dollars an acre. A “hired hand” for a neighboring farmer, he was rapidly paying off his debt and at the same time using his free moments to clear and plant his own acreage. Within a few years, his interviewer believed, he would be the proprietor of a profitable farm and well along the road to prosperity, an impossible transition in an older country where good land was tightly held by long-time owners. Nor was such enterprise exhibited by Americans alone, for Europeans who moved directly to the frontier soon fell into the spirit of the area. “Your farmers,” a backwoodsman told an English visitor, “sometimes fetch their servants on with them, but they are soon off to set up for themselves; and as for your labourers, they work for us until they can buy land for themselves, and then it is ‘Good bye to you’.” All agreed that progress from poverty to riches was fairly easy, for reports abounded of landholders in the West who were eager to rent land to penniless farmers on a sharecrop basis; five or six years would allow such a renter to save enough money to buy his own farm, at the same time supporting his numerous family. Children were an asset under these circumstances, for they could share the work in a land where hired help was dear and often unattainable. “A numerous family,” one pioneer told a visitor, “is the most profitable kind of cattle we can raise in these woods.”
Young men who chose to go west, travelers almost universally agreed, were virtually sure of financial success, no matter how small their capital. “A young man of enterprise and small capital … stands a much fairer chance to succeed-here, than any where east or south, because not only is his field larger and competition less, but new sources of wealth and power are developed every day, and more and more.” This did not mean that the West was a panacea for the shiftless and the lazy. “The same talent, tact and industry are requisite here as elsewhere,” wrote a visitor in the Ohio Valley. “The difference is, he must succeed here, elsewhere he may.” Nor was there any limit to success in that land of opportunity. A common saying in the backwoods, according to one reporter, was: “I don’t care about dying; but I should like to have had a chance of being president.”
The social attitudes prevalent in frontier communities stemmed from these conditions; in a land where a penniless newcomer might become an affluent citizen within a few years all men must be treated as equals, whatever their current station in life. Visitors accustomed to the titles and rigid class lines of older countries were astounded to witness a card game on an Ohio river steamboat where the participants were a minor clerk, a grocer, an army officer, and a member of the United States Congress, or to observe the deck stewards on another vessel take off their coats and join a similar game. Nor could visitors from overseas conceal their astonishment when they found a judge living in a log cabin, saw a member of the state legislature crowded with his family into a tiny hovel where two beds and a swill-barrel occupied the corners, or met a miller who was respectfully addressed as “Esquire” by all his customers. One condescending Englishman heard the man who was caulking his boat during a stop at Marietta in 1806 addressed as “General,” the village baker as “Colonel,” the local butcher as “Judge,” and his landlord as “Major.” “Our title,” one of these worthies told him, “signifies but little… . Those who really respect us, say, Tom, Dick, or whatever else we may be called.”
Sometimes, travelers reported, the rise to the top was so rapid that newcomers found themselves playing a role beyond them. A visitor interested in science sought out the village physician in one western community to put some questions; he found that the man he sought “had just turned doctor,” and knew nothing of either medicine or natural history. If the American backwoodsmen sometimes rose too rapidly in the social scale and always boasted of the complete equality of the West, so did they resent any putting on of airs or assumptions of superiority. Such manifestations of Old World snobbery were usually met with insults or abuse, as many a traveler found to his annoyance. When one such gentleman started to use his own silver fork on a Mississippi steamboat, another passenger produced a gigantic fork of wood to ridicule him; another was threatened with physical abuse unless he took off a fancy coat with brass buttons on it. Equally resented by Westerners was any attempt to treat them as servants or inferiors. The travel accounts abound with the disastrous experiences of those who failed to observe this rule: one visitor sent for a tailor in Cincinnati only to be informed that such a summons was “unrepublican” and that he must visit the shop; another met a honeymooning couple whose hired driver had abruptly departed when they failed to invite him to dine with them. “It is a common saying among the farmers of the Western Reserve,” remarked a traveler, ” ‘If a man is good enough to work for me, he is good enough to eat with me.’ And, accordingly, every hired person, male or female, native or foreigner, whom they employ, is ‘treated as one of the family.’ ” Even the word “servant” was taboo along the frontier; “hired man,” “hired girl,” and “help,” were used instead. So strong was feeling on this subject, one visitor reported, that western hotels had no communicating bells in their rooms lest the “hired men” who served as porters take offense at such an imperious summons.
This boasted equality did not mean that all class distinctions had vanished from the West, of course. Among the poverty stricken squatters on the extreme edge of the settlements, divisions might be unknown, but among the longer settled pioneers a distinction between the “common folk” and the “better sort” was readily observable to the more acute. The former still lived in rough cabins and performed the menial community tasks; the latter occupied luxurious homes of brick or wood, often elaborately furnished with mahogany or rosewood furniture and imported china. One traveler noted that many such frontier homes were equal or superior to the homes of England’s well-to-do, even though they had been built by their owners’ own hands over the course of two or three years. The sudden rise to wealth of such families, brought about by the rapid inflation of land prices, bred many a snobbish attitude singularly out of keeping with frontier democracy. In Lexington, a visitor observed, “a small group of rich citizens are endeavoring to withdraw themselves from the multitude. There are six or eight families of these better sort who live in a handsome manner, keep livery servants, and admit no person to their table of vulgar manner or suspicious character.”
This growing class stratification did not surprise the better informed travelers, who viewed such divisions as inevitable in civilized society. As one of them put it, “the wealthy, the wise, the proud, the profligate, the virtuous, and the vicious, will associate with people of the same character, in spite of every means that could be devised for their separation.” Yet they noted that the frontier class distinctions differed from those of older countries in two significant ways: access to the upper class was always open to any person of talent and energy without respect to his family background, and all persons thought of themselves as equal with all others whatever their status might be.
These attitudes have persisted in the United States down to the present. Today sociologists refuse to use the term “class” in referring to American society; such a word has no meaning in a land where all individuals, rich and poor, proudly proclaim their “middle class” status. Instead social scientists speak of “stratification,” and stress the “openendedness” of each level in society. Of course, to suggest that this fluid social order is solely the result of a frontier background is to tamper with the laws of evidence. Recent studies suggest that social mobility is about the same in all modern industrial countries; industry creates opportunities for individual advancement comparable to those that existed in frontier communities. Yet in America, as in no other country, the belief in the inevitability of progress is ingrained in the people. This mental trait would seem to be an outgrowth of their pioneering experience.
The tracing of such conclusions as these would be impossible without the evidence made available to historians by Everett D. Graff and other collectors like him. The monuments to the American past that they have laboriously assembled and preserved are essential if we are to understand our heritage and ourselves. Both the members of the historial profession, and the people of the United States, must remain forever in their debt.