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An essay by Samuel McChord Crothers

The American Temperament

Title:     The American Temperament
Author: Samuel McChord Crothers [More Titles by Crothers]


Stopping at some selected spot on the mountain road, the stage-driver will direct the stranger's attention to a projecting mass of rock which bears some resemblance to a human countenance. There is the "Old Man of the Mountains," or the "Old Woman," as the case may be.

If the stranger be of a docile disposition he will see what he is told to see. But he will be content with the vague suggestion and will not push the analogy too far. The similitude is strictly confined to the locality. It is enough if from a single point the mountain seems almost human. From any other point it will seem to be merely mountainous.

A similar caution is necessary in regard to the resemblances between a nation and an individual. When we talk of a national character or temperament, we are using an interesting and bold figure of speech. We speak of millions of people as if they were one. Of course, a nation is not one kind of person; it is composed of many kinds of persons. These persons are diverse in character. All Scotchmen are not canny, nor all Irishmen happy-go-lucky. Those who know a great many Chinamen are acquainted with those who are idealists with little taste for plodding industry. It is only the outsider who is greatly impressed by the family resemblance. To the more analytic mind of the parent each child is, in a most remarkable degree, different from the others.

When we take such typical characters as John Bull and Brother Jonathan as representing actual Englishmen or Americans, we put ourselves in the way of contradiction. They are not good likenesses. An English writer says: "As the English, a particularly quick-witted race, tinged with the colors of romance, have long cherished a false pride in their reputed stolidity, and have accepted with pleasant equanimity the figure of John Bull as their national signboard, though he does not resemble them, so Americans plume themselves on the thought that they are dying of nervous energy."

There is much truth in this. One may stand at Charing Cross and watch the hurrying crowds and only now and then catch sight of any one who suggests the burly John Bull of tradition. The type is not a common one, at least among city dwellers.

But when we attribute a temperament to a nation, we do not necessarily mean that all the people are alike. We only mean that there are certain ways of thinking and feeling that are common to those who have had the same general experience. The national temperament is manifested not so much in what the people are as in what they admire and instinctively appreciate.

Let us accept the statement that the English are a quick-witted and romantic people who have accepted with pleasant equanimity the reputation for being quite otherwise. Why should they do this? Why should they take pride in their reputed stolidity rather than in their actual cleverness. Here is a temperamental peculiarity that is worth looking into.

John Bull may be a myth, but Englishmen have been the mythmakers. They have for generations delighted in picturing him. He represents a combination of qualities which they admire. Dogged, unimaginative, well-meaning, honest, full of whimsical prejudices, and full of common sense, he is loved and honored by those who are much more brilliant than he.

John Bull is not a composite photograph of the inhabitants of the British Isles. He is not an average man. He is a totem. When an Indian tribe chooses a fox or a bear as a totem, they must not be taken too literally. But the symbol has a real meaning. It indicates that there are some qualities in these animals that they admire. They have proved valuable in the tribal struggle for existence.

Those who belong to the cult of John Bull take him as the symbol of that which has been most vital and successful in the island story. England has had more than its share of men of genius. It has had its artists, its wits, its men of quick imagination. But these have not been the builders of the Empire, or those who have sustained it in the hours of greatest need. Men of a slower temper, more solid than brilliant, have been the nation's main dependence. "It's dogged as does it." On many a hard-fought field men of the bull-dog breed have with unflinching tenacity held their own. In times of revolution they have maintained order, and never yielded to a threat. Had they been more sensitive they would have failed. Their foibles have been easily forgiven and their virtues have been gratefully recognized.

When we try to form an idea of that which is most distinctive in the American temperament, we need not inquire what Americans actually are. The answer to that question would be a generalization as wide as humanity. They are of all kinds. Among the ninety-odd millions of human beings inhabiting the territory of the United States are representatives of all the nations of the Old World, and they bring with them their ancestral traits.

But we may ask, When these diverse peoples come together on common ground, what sort of man do they choose as their symbol? There is a typical character understood and appreciated by all. In every caricature of Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan we can detect the lineaments of the American frontiersman.

James Russell Lowell, gentleman and scholar that he was, describes a type of man unknown to the Old World:--

"This brown-fisted rough, this shirt-sleeved Cid,
This backwoods Charlemagne of Empires new.
Who meeting Caesar's self would slap his back,
Call him 'Old Horse' and challenge to a drink."

Mr. Lowell bore no resemblance to this brown-fisted rough. He would not have slapped Caesar on the back, and he would have resented being himself greeted in such an unconventional fashion. Nevertheless he was an American and was able to understand that a man might be capable of such improprieties and at the same time be a pillar of the State. It tickled his fancy to think of a fellow citizen meeting the imperial Roman on terms of hearty equality.

"My lungs draw braver air, my breast dilates
With ampler manhood, and I face both worlds."

Dickens, with all his boisterous humor and democratic sympathies, could not interpret Jefferson Brick and Lafayette Kettle and the other expansive patriots whom he met on his travels. Their virtues were as a sealed book to him. Their boastful familiarity was simply odious.

To understand Lowell's exhilaration one must enter into the spirit of American history. It has been the history of what has been done by strong men who owed nothing to the refinements of civilization. The interesting events have taken place not at the centre, but on the circumference of the country. The centrifugal force has always been the strongest. There has been no capital to which ambitious youths went up to seek their fortune. In each generation they have gone to the frontier where opportunities awaited them. There they encountered, on the rough edges of society, rough-and-ready men in whom they recognized their natural superiors. These men, rude of speech and of manner, were resourceful, bold, far-seeing. They were conscious of their power. They were laying the foundations of cities and of states and they knew it. They were as boastful as Homeric heroes, and for the same reason. There was in them a rude virility that found expression in word as well as in deed.

Davy Crockett, coon-hunter, Indian fighter, and Congressman, was a great man in his day. It does not detract from his worth that he was well aware of the fact. There was no false modesty about this backwoods Charlemagne. He wrote of himself, "If General Jackson, Black Hawk, and me were to travel through the United States we would bring out, no matter what kind of weather, more people to see us than any other three people now living among the fifteen millions now inhabiting the United States. And what would it be for? As I am one of the persons mentioned I would not press the question further. What I am driving at is this. When a man rises from a low degree to a place he ain't used to, such a man starts the curiosity of the world to know how he got along."

Davy Crockett understood the temper of his fellow citizens. A man who rises by his own exertions from a low position to "a place he ain't used to" is not only an object of curiosity, but he elicits enthusiastic admiration. Any awkwardness which he exhibits in the position which he has achieved is overlooked. We are anxious to know how he got along.

Every country has its self-made men, but usually they are made to feel very uncomfortable. They are accounted intruders in circles reserved for the choicer few. But in America they are assured of a sympathetic audience when they tell of the way they have risen in the world. There is no need for them to apologize for any lack of early advantages, for they are living in a self-made country. We are in the habit of giving the place of honor to the beginner rather than to the continuer. For the finisher the time is not ripe.


The most vivid impressions of Americans have always been anticipatory. They have felt themselves borne along by a resistless current, and that current has, on the whole, been flowing in the right direction. They have never been confronted with ruins that tell that the land they inhabit has seen better days. Yesterday is vague; To-day may be uncertain; To-morrow is alluring; and the Day after to-morrow is altogether glorious. George Herbert pictured religion as standing on tiptoe waiting to pass to the American strand. Not only religion but every other good thing has assumed that attitude of expectant curiosity.

Even Cotton Mather could not avoid a tone of pious boastfulness when he narrated the doings of New England. Everything was remarkable. New England had the most remarkable providences, the most remarkable painful preachers, the most remarkable heresies, the most remarkable witches. Even the local devils were in his judgment more enterprising than those of the old country. They had to be in order to be a match for the New England saints.

The staid Judge Sewall, after a study of the prophecies, was of the opinion that America was the only country in which they could be adequately fulfilled. Here was a field large enough for those future battles between good and evil which enthralled the Puritan imagination. To be sure, it would be said, there isn't much just now to attract the historian whose mind dwells exclusively on the past. But to one who dips into the future it is thrilling. Here is the battlefield of Armageddon. Some day we shall see "the spirits of devils working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty." Just when that might take place might be uncertain but where it would take place was to them more obvious.

In the days of small things the settlers in the wilderness had large thoughts. They felt themselves to be historical characters, as indeed they were. They were impressed by the magnitude of the country and by the importance of their relation to it. Their language took on a cosmic breadth.

Ethan Allen could not have assumed a more masterful tone if he had had an Empire at his back instead of undisciplined bands of Green Mountain Boys. Writing to the Continental Congress, he declares that unless the demands of Vermont are complied with "we will retire into the fastnesses of our Green Mountains and will wage eternal warfare against Hell, the Devil, and Human Nature in general." And Ethan Allen meant it.

The love of the superlative is deeply seated in the American mind. It is based on no very careful survey of the existing world. It is a conclusion to which it is easy to jump. I remember one week, traveling through the Mississippi Valley, stopping every night in some town that had something which was advertised as the biggest in the world. On Friday I reached a sleepy little village which seemed the picture of contented mediocrity. Here, thought I, I shall find no bigness to molest me or make me afraid. But when I sat down to write a letter on the hotel stationery I was confronted with the statement, "This is the biggest little hotel in the State."

When one starts a tune it is safer to start it rather low, so as not to come to grief on the upper notes. In discussing the American temperament it is better to start modestly. Instead of asking what excellent qualities we find in ourselves, we should ask what do other nations most dislike in us. We can then have room to rise to better things. There is a family resemblance between the worst and the best of any national group. Kipling, in his lines "To an American," may set the tune for us. It is not too high. His American is boastful, careless, and irrationally optimistic.

"Enslaved, illogical, elate,
He greets the embarrassed gods, nor fears
To shake the iron hand of Fate
Or match with Destiny for beers."

A person who would offer to shake hands with Fate is certainly lacking in a fine sense of propriety. His belief in equality makes him indifferent to the note of distinction. "He dubs his dreary brethren kings." Of course they are not kings, but that makes no difference. It makes little difference whether anything corresponds to the name he chooses to give to it. For there is

"A cynic devil in his blood
That bids him mock his hurrying soul."

This impression of a mingling of optimism, cynicism, and hurry is one which is often made upon those who are suddenly plunged into American society. In any company of Americans who are discussing public affairs the stranger is struck by what seems the lack of logical connection between the statements of facts and the judgments passed upon them. The facts may be most distressing and yet nobody seems much distressed, still less is any one depressed. The city government is in the hands of grafters, the police force is corrupt, the prices of the necessaries of life are extortionate, the laws on the statute book are not enforced, and new laws are about to be enacted that are foolish in the extreme. Vast numbers of undesirable aliens are coming into the country and bringing with them ideas that are opposed to the fundamental principles of the republic. All this is told with an air of illogical elation. The conversation is interspersed with anecdotes of the exploits of good-natured rascals. These are received with smiles or tolerant laughter. Everyone seems to have perfect confidence that the country is a grand and glorious place to live in, and that all will come out well in the end.

Is this an evidence of a cynic humor in the blood, or is it a manifestation of childish optimism? Let us frankly answer that it may be one or the other or both. There are cynics and sentimentalists who are the despair of all who are seriously working for better citizenship. But the chances are that the men to whom our stranger was listening were neither cynics nor sentimentalists, but idealists who had the American temperament.

Among those who laughed good-naturedly over the temporary success of the clever rascal may have been those who had been giving their energies to the work of prevention of just such misdeeds. They are reformers with a shrewd twinkle in their eyes. They take a keen intellectual pleasure in their work, and are ready to give credit to any natural talent in their antagonist. If they are inclined to take a cheerful view of the whole situation it is because they are in the habit of looking at the situation as a whole. The predominance of force is actually on their side and they see no reason to doubt the final result. They have learned the meaning of the text, "Fret not thyself because of evildoers." In fact the evildoer may not have done so much harm as one might think. Nor is he really such a hopeless character. There is good stuff in him, and he yet may be used for many good purposes. They laugh best who laugh last, and their good-natured laughter was anticipatory. There are forces working for righteousness which they have experienced. On the whole things are moving in the right direction and they can afford to be cheerful.

This is the kind of experience which comes to those who are habitually dealing with crude materials rather than with finished products. They cannot afford to be fastidious; they learn to take things as they come and make the best of them. The doctrine that things are not as they seem is a cheerful one, to a person who is accustomed to dealing with things which turn out to be better than at first they seemed. The unknown takes on a friendly guise and awakens a pleasant curiosity. That is the experience of generations of pioneers and prospectors. They have found a continent full of resources awaking men of courage and industry. The opportunities were there; all that was needed was the ability to recognize them when they appeared in disguise.


And the human problem has been the same as the material one. Europe has sent to America not the finished products of her schools and her courts, but millions of people for whom she had no room. They were in the rough; they had to be made over into a new kind of citizen. This material has often been of the most unpromising appearance. It has often seemed to superficial observers that little could be made of it. But the attempt has been made. And those who have worked with it, putting skill and patience into their work, have been agreeably surprised. They have come to see the highest possibilities in the commonest lumps of clay.

The satisfaction that is taken in the common man is not in what he is at the present moment, but in what he has shown himself capable of becoming. Give him a chance and all the graces may be his. The American idealist admits that many of his fellow citizens may be rather dreary brethren, but so were many of the kings of whom nothing is remembered but their names and dates. Only now and then is one seen who is every inch a king. But such a person is a proof of what may be accomplished. It may take a long time for the rank and file to catch up with their leaders. But where the few are to-day the many will be to-morrow; for they are all travelling the same road.

The visitor in the United States, especially if he has spent his time in the great cities of the East, may go away with the idea that democracy is a spent force. He will see great inequalities in wealth and position. He will be struck by the fact that autocratic powers are wielded which would not be tolerated in many countries of Europe. He will notice that it is very difficult to give direct expression to the will of the people.

But he will make a mistake if he attributes these things to the growth of an aristocratic sentiment. They are a part of an evolution that is thoroughly democratic. The distinctive thing in an aristocracy is not the fact that certain people enjoy privileges. It lies in the fact that these privileged people form a class that is looked upon as superior. An aristocratic class must not only take itself seriously; it must be taken seriously by others.

In America there are groups of persons more successful than the average. They are objects of curiosity, and, if they are well-behaved, of respect. Their comings and goings are chronicled in the newspapers, and their names are familiar. But it does not occur to the average man that they are anything more than fortunate persons who emerged from the crowd, and who by and by may be lost in the crowd again. What they have done, others may do when their time comes. The inequalities are inequalities of circumstance and not of nature.

The commonplace American follows unworthy leaders and has admiration for cheap success. But he cherishes no illusions in regard to the objects of his admiration. They have done what he would like to do, and what he hopes to be able to do sometime. He thinks of the successful men as being of the same kind with himself. They are more fortunate, that is all.


The same temperamental quality is seen in the American idealist. His attitude toward his spiritual leaders is seldom that of meek discipleship. It is rather that of frank, outspoken comradeship. No mysterious barrier separates the great man from the common man. One has more, the other has less, that is all.

The men who have cherished the finest ideals have insisted that these should be shared by the multitude. In a newspaper of sixty years ago there is this contemporary character sketch: "Ralph Waldo Emerson is the most erratic and capricious man in America. He is emphatically a democrat of the world, and believes that what Plato thought, another man may think. What Shakespeare sang, another man may know as well. As for emperors, kings, queens, princes, or presidents, he looks upon them as children in masquerade. He has no patience with the chicken-hearted who refer to mouldy records or old almanacs to ascertain if they may say that their souls are their own. Mr. Emerson is a strange compound of contradictions. Always right in practice, and sometimes in theory. He is a sociable, accessible, republican sort of man, and a great admirer of nature."

Could any better description be given of the kind of man whom Americans delight to honor? This "sociable, accessible, republican sort of man" happened to be endowed with gifts denied in such full measure to his countrymen. But they were gifts which they understood and appreciated. He was one of them, and expressed and interpreted their habitual thought. Luther used to declare that no one who had never had trials and temptations could understand the Holy Scriptures. And one might say that no one who had never taken part in a town meeting, or listened to the talk of neighbors at the country store, or traveled in an "accommodation train" in the Middle West, can fully understand Emerson.

Critics have often written of the optimism of Emerson as if he were one of those who did not perceive the darker side of things. Nothing could be more untrue to his temper of mind. Emerson was cheerful, but he never pretended that the world was an altogether cheerful place to live in. Indeed, it distinctly needed cheering up, and that, according to him, is what we are here for.

It might be possible to make out a list of matters of fact treated by Emerson and his friend Carlyle. They would be essentially the same. When it came to hard facts, one was as unflinching in his recognition as the other. There was nothing smug in Emerson's philosophy. He never took an apologetic attitude nor attempted to minimize difficulties. There was no attempt to justify the ways of God to man. But while agreeing in regard to the facts the friends differed as to their conclusions. In reading Carlyle one seems to stand at the end of a world struggle that has proved unavailing. Everything has been tried, and everything has failed. Alas! Alas!

Emerson sees the same facts, but he seems to be standing at the beginning. The moral world is still without form and void, but the creative spirit is brooding upon it. "Sweet is the genesis of things." Emerson is pleased with the world, not because he thinks its present condition is very good, but because he sees so much room for it to become better. It is a most promising experiment. It furnishes an abundance of the raw materials of righteousness.

Nor does he flatter himself that the task of betterment is an easy one, or that the end is in sight. It is not a world where wishes, even good wishes, are fulfilled without effort. There are inexorable laws not of our making. The whims of good people are not respected.

"For Destiny never swerves
Nor yields to man the helm."

The struggle is stem and unrelenting. It taxes all our energies. And yet it is exhilarating. There is a moral quick-wittedness which sees the smile behind the threatening mask of Fate. Destiny is after all a good comrade for the brave and the self-reliant.

"He forbids to despair,
His cheeks mantle with mirth,
And the unimagined good of man
Is yeaning at the birth."

The riddle of existence is seen not from the Old World point of view, but from that of the new. It is of the nature of a surprise. The Sphinx of Emerson is not carved in stone. It is not silent and motionless, waiting for answers that do not come.

It is the American Sphinx leading in a game of hide-and-seek. The mystery of existence baffles us, not because there is no answer, but because there are so many. They are infinite in number, and all of them are true. They wait for the mind large enough to harbor them in all their variety, and serene enough not to be annoyed because their contradictions are not at once reconciled.

The catalogue of ills may be never so long, but it fails to depress one who sees everything in the making.

"I heard a poet answer
Aloud and cheerfully,
'Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
Are pleasant songs to me.'

* * * * *

"Uprose the merry Sphinx,
And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud.
She silvered in the moon."

This conception of the merry Sphinx may seem strange to the dyspeptic philosopher pondering on the inscrutableness of the universe. But the prospectors in the mining camps of the Far West, and the builders of new cities understand what Emerson meant. Their experience of the ups and downs of fortune has taught them how to find pleasure in uncertainty. You never can tell how anything will turn out till you try. That's the fun of it. They are quite ready to believe that the same thing holds good in the higher life.

Or take the lines on "Worship." How can Worship be personified? Emerson's picture is not that of a patriarch on bended knee; it is that of a vigorous youth picking himself up after he has been knocked down by his antagonist.

"This is he, who, felled by foes,
Sprung harmless up, refreshed by blows."

Religion is a kind of spiritual resilience. It is that which makes a man come back with new vigor to his work after his first failure. It is the ability to make a new beginning.

In Emerson the American hurry is transformed into something of spiritual significance. A new commandment is given to the good man--Be quick! Keep moving!

"Trenchant Time behoves to hurry,

* * * * *

O wise man, hearest thou the least part,
Seest them the rushing metamorphosis,

Dissolving all that fixture is,
Melts things that be to things that seem."

Morality and religion must be speeded up if they are to do any useful work in this swift world.

If the ideals of the saints and reformers were criticized, so were those of the scholars. Matthew Arnold's definition of culture was that of a man of books. It was the knowledge of the best that had been said and known in the past. Emerson's lines entitled "Culture" begin with a characteristic question and end with an equally characteristic affirmation. The question is--

"Can rules or tutors educate
The semigod whom we await?"

The affirmation is that the man of culture is one who

"to his native centre fast,
Shall into Future fuse the Past,
And the world's flowing fates in his own mould recast."

According to this definition Abraham Lincoln, with his slight knowledge of the best things of the past, but with the power to fuse such knowledge as he had and to recast it in his own mould, was a man of culture. And all true Americans would agree with him.

Emerson, like the "sociable, accessible, republican sort of man" that he was, was the foe of special privilege. The best things were, in his judgment, the property of all. He would take religion from the custody of the priests, and culture from the hands of schoolmasters, and restore them to their proper place, among the inalienable rights of man. They were simply forms of the pursuit of happiness of which the Declaration of Independence speaks. It is a right of which no potentates can justly deprive the citizen.

Above all, he would protest against everything which tends to deprive anyone of the happiness of the forward look. There was a cheerful confidence that the great forces are on our side. Now and then the clouds gather and obscure the vision, but:

"There are open hours
When God's will sallies free
And the dull idiot may see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years."

This is the American doctrine of "Manifest Destiny" spiritually discerned.


But one need not go so far back as Emerson to see the higher reaches of the American temperament. Perhaps in no one have they been revealed with more distinctness than in William James. There are those who consider it dispraise of a philosopher to suggest that his work has local color. However that may be, William James thought as an American as certainly as Plato thought as a Greek. His way of philosophizing was one that belonged to the land of his birth.

He was as distinctly American as was Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone was no renegade taking to the woods that he might relapse into savagery. He was a civilized man who preferred to be the maker of civilization rather than to be its victim. He preferred to blaze his own way through the forest. When he saw the smoke of a neighbor's chimney it was time for him to move on. So William James was led by instinct from the crowded highways to the dim border-lands of human experience. He preferred to dwell in the debatable lands. With a quizzical smile he listened to the dignitaries of philosophy. He found their completed systems too stuffy. He loved the wildernesses of thought where shy wild things hide--half hopes, half realities. They are not quite true now,--but they may be by and by.

As other men are interested in the actual, so he was interested in the possible. The possibilities are not so highly finished as the facts that have been proved, but there are a great many more of them, and they are much more important. There are more things in the unexplored forest than in the clearing at its edge. Truth to him was not a field with metes and bounds. It was a continent awaiting settlement. First the bold pathfinders must adventure into it. Its vast spaces were infinitely inviting, its undeveloped resources were alluring. And not only did the path-finder interest him but the path-loser as well. But for his heedless audacity the work of exploration would languish. Was ever a philosopher so humorously tender to the intellectual vagabonds, the waifs and strays of the spiritual world!

Their reports of vague meanderings in the border-land were listened to without scorn. They might be ever so absent-minded and yet have stumbled upon something which wiser men had missed. No one was more keen to criticize the hard-and-fast dogmas of the wise and prudent or more willing to learn what might, by chance, have been revealed unto babes. The one thing he demanded was space. His universe must not be finished or inclosed. After a rational system had been formulated and declared to be the Whole, his first instinct was to get away from it. He was sure that there must be more outside than there was inside. "The 'through-and-through' universe seems to suffocate me with its infallible, impeccable all-pervasiveness. Its necessity with no possibilities, its relations with no subjects, make me feel as if I had entered into a contract with no reserved rights."

Formal philosophy seemed to him to be "too buttoned-up and white-chokered and clean-shaven a thing to speak for the vast, slow-breathing, unconscious Kosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides. The freedom we want is not the freedom, with a string tied to its leg and warranted not to fly away, of that philosophy. Let it fly away, we say, from us. What then?"

To this American there must be a true democracy among the faculties of the mind. The logical understanding must not be allowed to put on priggish airs. The feelings have their rights also. "They may be as prophetic and as anticipatory of truth as anything else we have." There must be give and take; "what hope is there of squaring and settling opinions unless Absolutism will hold parley on this common ground and admit that all philosophies are hypotheses, to which all our faculties, emotional as well as logical, help us, and the truest of which will in the final integration of things be found in possession of the men whose faculties on the whole had the best divining power?"

Do not those words give us a glimpse of the American mind in its natural working. Its genius is anticipatory. It is searching for a common ground on which all may meet. It puts its trust not in the thinker who can put his thoughts in the most neat form, but the man whose faculties have on the whole the best divining power.

To listen to William James was to experience an illogical elation--and to feel justified in it. He was an unsparing critic of things as they are, but his criticism left us in no mood of depression. Our interest is with things as they are going to be. The universe is growing. Let us grow with it.

[The end]
Samuel McChord Crothers's essay: American Temperament