Only In America: The Goodness That Greatness Begot
In the first chapter of Dr. Jerome Huyler’s work, Only in America, Dr. Huyler begins the story of America and its greatness via his study of history and American life.
Huyler’s work is an observation of America and also on civics education in America and is being presented by The Founding Project in a series of articles. Dr. Huyler’s essay is a response to one author’s book, which has come to influence a version of civics education in America, but he found that book’s content does not coincide with the full civics education programs once prevalent in American schools.
But, if you missed his introduction to this work, (See this website, link below.) in that introduction, he began to contrast the message of this one book and its conflict with prior decades of teaching. And, in his coming chapters, Huyler delivers the studied history behind the greatness of America. Join The Founding Project and Dr. Huyler as he tells the story of America.
The Founding Project welcomes Dr. Huyler and hopes our members appreciate this important series. Be sure to note his biography, below, for more books by Jerome Huyler, PhD.
[Editor’s Note: Sub-titles are supplied by TFP’s website editor for ease in reading and to meet SEO website requirements.]
Part One: THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE
American culture is truly like no other. It is exceptional and every American who has been blessed with the good fortune of breathing her life-enhancing vapors should appreciate the privilege.
Now, any discussion of American culture must begin with the idea of freedom. Even though so many productive and accomplished Americans are paying upwards of 50% in combined federal, state and local taxes, most don’t really feel half-slave/half-free. Freedom is theirs, for they are free to hold dearest, the things that are nearest to them. (1) family (we “come home for the holidays”), (2) friendships (ties born of shared aims and interests, mutual care and the several levels of love), faith (on one devotional level or another and owing to a universal tolerance for all creeds and customs), (4) good fortune (for now, call it financial security) and (5) their freedom.
From the country’s birth, Americans have deemed themselves free to choose the values they will pursue, the traditions they will keep and the associations they will form. They claim the plain right to live and be left alone, to live and let live. In short, Americans cherish what can be thought of as a precious “sphere of privacy.”
The Sphere of Privacy
This is the axle around which American life revolves, the common patterns and daily routines everywhere in evidence. People can certainly be public-spirited and participate in public affairs. It’s a free country, after all. But, the business of life is at its base a purely private affair. This does not make of individuals isolated atoms bumping and colliding like so many angry billiard balls. From the start, America could be called “a nation of joiners,” forming unions for every imaginable cause, purpose and pursuit under the sun.
“For most of mankind’s history (and in much of today’s world),
life has been a tragic affair, offering little hope for improvement.”
Now, a nation of individuals mostly pursuing their personal aspirations must have expectations. And what Americans could expect is something no former society or civilization had managed to offer, a steady improvement in the conditions of daily life. For most of mankind’s history (and in much of today’s world), life has been a tragic affair, offering little hope for improvement. Untold generations labored from sunup to sundown merely to provide themselves with life’s bare necessities.
Luxury and comfort were available now and again, but only for the very few, the rulers, the thieving rich, the privileged classes or armed banditti. Oppression and subjugation at the hands of neighboring armies, invading barbarian hoards or roving bands of heartless thugs pot mark every page of history’s calendar. Nor is this so many pages torn from ancient times. The past century saw a level of barbarism and a toll of slaughtered innocents unmatched in the annals of human malice. And, “there but for fortune go you or I”.
The American Constant: Change
In America, change was the only constant. And, to an unprecedented degree (though not for all), it pointed in a single, happy direction, up. The American Experience is unlike any other in its capacity to dramatically transform and improve the conditions of daily life.
In its most immediate sense, improvement measures the progress civilizations make in coping with nature’s unavoidable threats, e.g., her storms and tempests, seasonal extremes of heat and cold, human illness, criminal contagions, foreign invasions, sanitary hazards and, especially, scarcity, i.e., a paucity of the resources on which human life depends. For most of mankind’s history living conditions ranged from harsh to horrific. A young, self-confident America resolved to be stagnant no more.
Generations ago, Americans decided that the future could be far better than the present, as the present was a vast improvement over the past. The coming Industrial Revolution held the key. Down through the decades clever tinkerers, inventors, mechanics, engineers and scientists came up with innovative materials, processes and gadgets.
The steady introduction of life-saving, labor-saving products meant a steady release from the toil and drudgery that consumed all prior generations. Mass production made it possible. Grandparents looked with astonishment as their children and grandchildren brought home furnishings and appliances, comforts and conveniences the likes of which they could not have afforded or even imagined in their youth.
Consider how different living conditions would be had the following not been invented, patented and brought to market: the wood burning stove or elegant fireplace, the water heater, factory fan, room air conditioner or central climate-control system, indoor plumbing, bicycles and baby carriages, mass-produced furniture, off-the-rack clothing and affordable, machine-made footwear. Throw in toothpaste, deodorant shampoo, makeup and eyewear and, well, you see the point.
Just imagine what it had to feel like in the days and years after one’s neighborhood was first wired for electricity. Edison’s incandescent lamps could be installed not just on every street, turning night to light for the first time in history, but in every room of one’s home or tenement flat. Then came the many labor-saving appliances that ran off it, i.e., the refrigerator, clothes washer, a little later the clothes dryer, dish washer, toaster oven, microwave and coffee maker.
Families could now enjoy so many boredom-busting “amusements,” the rotary telephone, record player, radio, TV, desktop computer, Next came battery powered devices, from hand-held transistor radios, to tablets to the ubiquitous smart phone that just about does it all (with apps for work and play). By the time the modern supermarket came along, putting food on the family table could be accomplished in minutes (when it was not a quick trip to a fast-food joint). In earlier periods, it was a full day of daunting toil to accomplish as much.
So many wondrous things to work for, save for, and with the invention of the mail order catalogue and Amazon.com, send for. And, somewhere along the way some creative soul decided that more expensive items (sewing machines, upright pianos and automobiles) could be happily purchased “on time.” Then came the checking account, the bank credit and debit card, PayPal and all the innovative modes of conducting commercial transaction yet to come. Not everyone in the world enjoys these comforts and conveniences. They should not be taken for granted – or lost to those who will come after. One invention, in particular is worth a special mention,
Rise of the Middle Class, Suburban life and Leisure
Nearly nothing said middle class or so changed the American landscape as the family automobile, at least, by Henry Ford’s day. There were cars and auto makers before that, but what they offered could be afforded by only a few. By synchronizing the attachment of a diverse range of component parts to an automobile chassis moving along an assembly line, Ford could put out a car in far less time and at far less cost than any competitor. Ford introduced his affordable, reliable Model T in 1913. A decade later the auto was rolling off a Ford assembly line every ninety minutes. It could be purchased for $290, paid in full, with unlimited freedom included at no extra cost.
By 1908, there were 9,000 cars trudging along America’s weather-tossed roads. By 1913, the year Ford christened his assembly line, that number grew to one million. The next ten years saw a ten-fold increase and by 1927 surveys counted 26 million automobiles on America’s streets and highways (one for every five living Americans).
By 1960, 60% of American households owned their own automobiles. 62% owned their own homes and 70% enjoyed television in their own living rooms nightly. America’s Middle Classes spend about $40 billion annually just to care for their lawns.
Ingenuity Improves Life
Yet, all Henry Ford did was to ingeniously adapt a prior innovation, interchangeable parts. A century earlier, Ely Whitney realized that by separately fashioning so many locks, stocks and barrels, then assembling them in one place (Adam Smith’s division of labor idea), he could dramatically decrease the time and cost of manufacturing an item with great consumer appeal: the rifle.
By century’s end, Irving Singer’s precision parts became the pedal-powered sewing machines that added hours to a housewife’s day. Singer’s innovative “on-time” purchasing arrangement allowed families across America to bring one home in short order.
Henry Ford put America on wheels, In the bargain he created not just new jobs, but entire new industries. Ford would need steel, glass, rubber, leather, eventually vinyl coverings and plastics, metal fabrication plants and assembly facilities. These had to be furnished by other Americans working in so many construction trades. All kinds of materials would have to be produced and shipped to Detroit’s automotive sites and additional trucks and thousands of drivers would be needed to bring them there.
Families opened filling stations and tankers delivered the new, cleaner burning fuel (gasoline, not kerosene) to every point on the map. Workers would have to eat or have a watering hole “where everybody knew your name”, restaurants and bars could flourish requiring an even larger work force. Franchise chains and pricey advertising campaigns stoked employment rolls further. The national economy grew by leaps and bounds.
Life Driven by a Thriving Economy
It is what a robust supply-side driven free market looks like. Often denigrated by capitalism’s critics as “trickle down” it actually worked every time it was tried. Like the widening waves of good fortune resulting from Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ enterprising labors in our own time, Americans happily found work in an explosion of new and expanding occupations and enterprises. And, industrialization led to the mass production of three additional “Yankee” innovations: (1) a middle class, (2) suburban life and (3) leisure time.
And, industrialization led to the mass production of three additional “Yankee” innovations:
(1) a middle class, (2) suburban life and (3) leisure time.
Well-to-do families had been moving to the suburbs since before the Civil War. Street cars and steam locomotives made commuting to work possible. But it was the automobile that triggered the widespread move to idyllic village settings all across America. In the years following World War II, the country rapidly grew closer to the city. The chance to leave the grime, crime and frantic pace of city life and settle down in safe, open spaces appealed to millions. America became a “land of lawns.”
Within a single generation, the joys and blessings of suburban life crossed the North American continent. Close enough to the city to obtain gainful employment and pay one’s bills, but situated in one’s own home with manicured lawns and country all around, what was there not to love? The price may have been the daily commute, but Americans loved their cars or could find lots to do on the train ride to and fro. Today, America’s suburbs are filled to overflowing with a middle class made up of police officers, sanitation workers, doctors, dentists, teachers, tailors, lawyers, and long-haul truck drivers.
The “Land of Lawns”
Suburban life, in large part, was made possible by the ingenious application of industrial processes to the task of home construction. Abraham Levitt and his sons have been called the “Henry Fords of housing.”
Turning the building process into a stationary assembly line, by 1948, the Levitts were mass producing lovely humble abodes across Long Island, NY. Completing 35 houses a day in 1948, by the 1960’s the Levitts were framing and finishing g a house every fifteen minutes. They would eventually put 140,000 units on the market, as builders copied their construction practices all across the country.
For an ever-expanding middle class, items considered luxuries for one generation became absolute necessities for the next. And, the devices that saved labor, also saved time. A golden Age of Leisure was born. American families enjoyed more leisure time than any other people were ever privileged to possess.
Family outings, long summer vacations in the mountains or at the seashore and specialty camps for the kids grew in popularity. There would be time for spectator sports and time to participate as Boy/Girl Scout leaders or little league coaches and referees. There was time to attend the visiting circus or concert performance, seasonal art or auto exhibition, to sign up for dance lessons, show up for Friday-night card games or just go to an opening-night movie.
American families enjoyed more leisure time than any other people were ever privileged to possess.
Needless to say, not everyone arrived in America in “rags” or rose to “riches.” But in this golden land of opportunity “upward mobility” was like low-hanging fruit, right there for the picking. There were notable interruptions, periodic Panics and Plunges. In the ensuing years, fear and hardship could spread. Progress could come to a grinding halt. The housing bubble that burst in September, 2008 was but the latest in a long line of national calamities. Each demands closer scrutiny. But it can’t take anything away from the long-term glide path that, by the late 20th century, made life so much freer, safer and more comfortable than it had ever before been.
[Dr. Jerome Huyler’s “Only In America–The Goodness Greatness Begot” will continue with its Second Chapter in an upcoming article on The Founding Project’s website. Stay tuned! To read the Introduction to “Only In America”, search for the title on this website or click this link: https://thefoundingproject.com/only-america-introduction/ ]
Jerome Huyler, PhD. is a former assistant professor (Seton Hall University) and the author of Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era and Everything You Have: The Case Against Welfare. Dr. Huyler lectures regularly at political events and patriotic organizations in the Greater New York Region. He is published in scholarly journals and several websites and has delivered invited addresses at national, regional and local academic conferences.