Against the Current
All Americans had "a lively faith in human perfectibility," according to Alexis de Tocqueville. "They think that the spread of enlightenment must necessarily produce useful results and that ignorance must have fatal effects; all think of society as a body progressing; they see humanity as a changing picture in which nothing either is or ought to be fixed forever; and they admit that what seems good to them today may be replaced tomorrow by something better that is still hidden." We might disagree with Toequeville that all Americans shared any single faith. But if we modify his statement appropriately, so that it refers to civic-minded Americans like those he and Fredrika Bremer conversed with or those who attended Ralph Waldo Emerson's lectures, it is an excellent description of an outlook among Americans that was strikingly modern. 1 This outlook was unhampered by tradition, flexible, and progressive. It was confident of the powers of education and intellect and looked forward to continuous social improvement as the great benefit of democracy. But very little was required to turn flexibility into doubt and to turn faith in the flow of progress into a picture of humanity drifting forever in a sea of uncertainty.
To the pastlessness, mobility, and masquerade of the post-revolutionary decades I would like to add elements of modernity, defined in terms of both progressive improvement and uncertainty of conviction. To offer any argument about what is "modern" is to venture onto treacherous ground. The word has no precise meaning, and over time its connotations have changed.
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Publication information: Book title: Boats against the Current:American Culture between Revolution and Modernity, 1820-1860. Contributors: Lewis Perry - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 215.
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