19th Century Mentality

Reading through a “news” paper the other day, I read the comments of an ardent Kerry supporter accusing Bush of having a “19th Century mentality”, apparently because Bush thinks that killing dangerous enemies and producing fuel are worthwhile activities. As I so often do when hearing the comments of Bush opponents, my reaction was “I wish!” I guess you know you’ve definitely become someone’s political enemy when you hear him accusing your candidate of things that would make you a fanatical supporter if only they were true.

At any rate, it constantly amazes me to hear people speak of a “19th Century mentality” as if it were a terrible insult, and to speak of the 19th Century itself as if it was a time when our benighted policies kept us on the road to disaster until 20th Century heroes took the reins of power and saved the day. I suppose that I must confess that I myself harbor a 19th Century mentality.

It was a 19th Century mentality that brought us the telegraph and the telephone. The electric light and the electric power plant. The transcontinental railroad and the automobile. The steamship, which enabled millions of people to escape misery in Europe and begin the long climb to prosperity on our shores. Typewriters and bicycles. Sewing machines. The airplane (yes, it came in 1903, but I’m pretty sure the Wright Brothers can credibly be accused of harboring a 19th Century mentality, like Edison, Bell, and Morse before them).

It was a 19th Century mentality that saved the whales, and found something better than whale oil to use as fuel. It is not to the credit of the 20th Century mentality that the man who organized the enterprise that produced more fuel at a cheaper price than anyone on the planet came to be regarded as a villain, and his enterprise that flooded the world with that fuel came to be regarded as “predatory”.

It was a 19th Century mentality that finally drove slavery out of the civilized world. For uncounted millenia, muscle power dominated production, and men who controlled hundreds of other mens’ muscles with whips grew wealthy while men who didn’t stayed in poverty. It was men with a 19th Century mentality who finally denounced slavery as unequivocally evil, and who devised ways to outproduce the slaveowners and drive them to ruin. It was free men with a 19th Century mentality who replaced muscle power with machine power on a large enough scale that free men who used their minds to develop and control the machines irrevocably gained the upper hand over men who used whips to control armies of slaves forbidden to use their minds. And when the slaveowners resorted to war to protect their barbaric enterprises and their own ill-gotten position atop their mideval social order, the free men and their machines flooded their enemies with weapons and ammunition, with food and clothing, in quantities never before seen, while their own soldiers went days without food and often fought barefoot in gray rags that might once have been uniforms.

It was a confidence in the continuation of the 19th Century mentality that led people well into the 20th Century to predict wonders for the present day that still have not materialized. It is the remnants of the 19th Century mentality that drive the computer revolution and the race for the X-Prize. I daresay that had we kept the 19th Century mentality to the present day, you could see lots of young-looking and healthy people recount their first-hand experiences of the 19th Century on your holographic TV at your home in the outer solar system. Instead, the man who organized the enterprise that produced computer operating systems that average people can use and afford is denounced as a villain (often by people using the very tools his organization produced!), the men who continue to produce fuel for our society are accused of “raping the Earth”, and those same people regard any attempt to replace the fossil fuel they hate so much with nuclear fuel as a conspiracy to kill everyone with evil “radiation”. Right-thinking people with a 21st Century progressive mindset look upon average people traveling faster to their jobs, from larger and more remote estates, and denounce it as “sprawl” and never consider that people with their benighted 19th Century mentality once confidently and eagerly awaited the day when we would all use skycars to commute hundreds or thousands of miles. People with outdated 19th Century minds once eagerly awaited the day when pharmaceutical companies would cure cancer or even beat the aging process, while progressive 21st Century thinkers consider such things trivial compared to the pharmaceutical companies’ evil conspiracy to sell their drugs at a profit, and to commit the unspeakable outrage of advertising their product. Bush with his alleged 19th Century mind pushed through a 20th Century-style government program to give away drugs, and progressive 21st Century thinkers call him an agent of the pharmaceutical companies because the plan calls for those companies to be paid for the drugs!

Today we regard the 19th Century as a time of unremitting misery, and indeed our ancestors of that time lived in conditions we find deplorable, but many fail to consider that this is not because our mentality or our policies are better than theirs, but simply because the progressive 20th Century policies did not manage to completely halt the march of progress that was in full swing long before any 20th Century “reformers” came on the scene. But as you drive your groundcar through innumerable bottlenecks, and behold the nearly empty sky, as you visit your ailing parents or the graves of your grandparents, as you look at the night sky and see nothing but unreachable stars and absolutely deserted planets, take a moment to consider what might have been if only the 19th Century mentality had remained the driving force of our society.

9 thoughts on “19th Century Mentality”

  1. It was 19th century thinking that sent Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and his Marines ashore to attack the Tripoli pirates in 1804.

  2. Well, I guess when you compare it to the 20th century mentality, the one that brought us communism, fascism, nazism, gulags and concentration camps, two world wars, global terrorism and nuclear weapons, the 19th century looks pretty boring.

  3. There is a lot to be admired about the 19th century, particularly the libertarian period in American history that ended with the Civil War. Most of the problems of the post-bellum and 20th century occurred because the world slipped away from the minarchist, free-market, laissez fair world of the 19th century, not the other way around.

    Neither side of the political aisle seems to get this.

  4. The period before the Civil War wasn’t libertarian for slaves. Many of the societal changes since then have been beneficial.

  5. As someone who teaches courses in 19th century literature and culture, I appreciate your positive assessment of “19th Century mentality,” in answer to the snide comments by Kerry supporters who attempt to bash Bush by associating him with 19th Century ideas. You are right to point out the positive values associated with a spirit of adventure, courage, a desire to explore and map the universe, to study the natural world and advance human society. More subtle perhaps is a characteristic 19th-Century faith in objective truth, in a disinterestedness that enables us to transcend our ordinary selves in our quest for a higher good. See Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” for example.

  6. “The period before the Civil War wasn’t libertarian for slaves. Many of the societal changes since then have been beneficial.”

    Some of the societal changes (socialism) since then resulted in over 150 million state sponsored murders. Can we at least call it a draw?

    I don’t agree with the implied link between slavery and minarchist government. Every civilized nation on the planet abolished slavery in the 19th century. Only one felt the need to accomplished that task by through war (and then only as a by-product). The government didn’t have to acquire vast new powers in order to abolish slavery (all they had to do was offer compensation, something that the radical abolisionists would never agree to because many were as interested in punishing slave owners as helping slaves). For the proponents of big government (Republicans at the time), this was just a fortunate bonus.

    It’s very easy to say that slavery existed in the 19th century so everything that happened then is permanently tainted. The problem most people with this view have is that they don’t apply the same standard to the bloodist century in world history, which is held out as a superior comparison.

  7. I could have written that comment better. I don’t think there is or was any necessary connection between slavery and small government. Nor do I dispute that socialism has been an unmitigated disaster. Nor am I taking a position here on when slavery would have been abolished if there had been no Civil War. I am merely pointing out that some people really did have it worse before that war (and after, when state governments in the South selectively enforced laws prohibiting murder, assault and intimidation).

    And lots of things today are better than they used to be. There is probably, at least in the U.S., less racial animosity. There is more wealth, which makes everyone’s life better. Women have more opportunities. People live longer and healthier lives. These aren’t trivialities. Sure, there is less freedom along a number of dimensions, we pay taxes at much higher rates, etc. It would be nice if we could retain the good things about modern life without having to keep the statism, and without having to have gone through the socialist murder orgies of the 20th Century, but we don’t have this option. Recognizing that some things are better now doesn’t mean we have forgotten the Gulag or favor the system that created it.

  8. “Today we regard the 19th Century as a time of unremitting misery … .”

    Not if you read what the people at the time were saying and doing. They knew they were living in an exciting time and the world was for the taking for those who would throw the dice. The sky seemed to be the limit. Freedom was in the air, and no problem or challenge seemed to be beyond hope of resolution.

    And the “Victorians” get a false bad rap as being a bunch of people who weren’t a lot of fun. There is a terrific old essay by Arthur Machen called “the Poor Victorians” (in his collection of essays entitled “Dog and Duck” (1924)). Machen gives a satirical depiction of how dowdy the Victorians supposedly were. He then goes on to describe the nightlife of mid-Victorian London, with its supper clubs which served vast meals beginning at midnight after the theatre: “mountains of kidneys, chops, sausages, the pints of stout, the creaming Scotch ale, the mighty measures of punch and grog; and all this was beginning at one in the morning.” He laments that in 1924 an Englishman cannot even buy a cigarette after 8:00 p.m.

    Life was hard for many in those days, but the poor you always have with you. More importantly, we all know that life being hard is easier to take when the prospects of something much better are realistically before your eyes. The thousands who set out from Europe to go to American or Australia, or go out West from the East Coast went with high spirits and hopes for great things — and sometimes had spectacular success, and often made a good life for themselves and their families.

    Three cheers for the men and women of the 19th century, our ancestors, heroic people of a heroic age. Let us all pause a moment in gratitude for all that we have had which is a gift to our age from the unfairly maligned 19th century mind.

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