Why Noah Webster preferred Americans

by on February 18, 2017 at 10:41 pm in Books, Economics, Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

It is very much a twist on Adam Smith’s argument about the division of labor:

One further remark however, which I cannot omit, is that the people in America are necessitated, by their local situation, to be more sensible and discerning, than nations which are limited in territory and confined to the arts of manufacture. In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are, obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life. A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian. This will always be the case in America, so long as their is a vast tract of fertile land to be cultivated, which will occasion emigration from the states already settled. Knowledge is diffused and genius routed by the very situation of America.

That is from his Sketches of American Policy, #29.

1 Anon7 February 18, 2017 at 10:57 pm

“every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics”

It’s Marx’s utopia! (One can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”)

2 steveslr February 19, 2017 at 2:43 am

Franklin and Jefferson were examples of this tendency.

On the other hand, it probably held Americans back in high theory (e.g., the lack of American Nobel prizes until the end of the 1920s.)

3 Thiago Ribeiro February 19, 2017 at 4:51 am

This is because, as Brazilian writer Erico Verissimo pointed out in his study of the American people, having an Edson, Americans never thought they should have an Einstein. The American is practical and his interest is dedicated to earning money. As Brazilian writer Lima Barreto pointed out, the American motto is, “make money, honesrly if you can, but make money”. Making money (or trying to make money) is the chief business of the American population.

4 JWatts February 19, 2017 at 11:02 am

“This is because, as Brazilian writer Erico Verissimo pointed out in his study of the American people, having an Edson, Americans never thought they should have an Einstein.”

Einstein became an American citizen. So, that’s a pretty tone deaf comment, or maybe just a dumb comment.

It’s also notable that the British refused to give Einstein citizenship.

“Locker-Lampson also submitted a bill to parliament to extend British citizenship to Einstein, during which period Einstein made a number of public appearances describing the crisis brewing in Europe. The bill failed to become law, however, and Einstein then accepted an earlier offer from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, in the U.S., to become a resident scholar.”

“Einstein became an American citizen in 1940. Not long after settling into his career at the Institute for Advanced Study (in Princeton, New Jersey), he expressed his appreciation of the meritocracy in American culture when compared to Europe. He recognized the “right of individuals to say and think what they pleased”, without social barriers, and as a result, individuals were encouraged, he said, to be more creative, a trait he valued from his own early education.”

5 Alain February 19, 2017 at 12:19 pm

“He recognized the “right of individuals to say and think what they pleased”, without social barriers,”

I wonder what he would think of academia, and America in general, today?

6 Scott H. February 19, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Exactly, but you missed it. The writer is saying that American culture can create and Edison, but it cannot and did not create an Einstein. The fact that Einstein ultimately immigrated to the United States seems like it could be relevant, but isn’t.

7 dearieme February 19, 2017 at 7:10 am

“every man in New England is a theologian”: he forgot to append “alas”.

“Franklin and Jefferson were examples of this tendency.” But Jefferson was lousy at it.

8 Brian W February 19, 2017 at 8:15 pm

“On the other hand, it probably held Americans back in high theory (e.g., the lack of American Nobel prizes until the end of the 1920s.)”

Not one single American won a Nobel prize in the 1800s. Not one. Take that, Noah Webster.

9 Sam The Sham February 19, 2017 at 7:54 am

It’s not Marx’s utopia that people are opposed to, it’s that the path to get there is bogus and actually leads to Hell on Earth. A dystopic cyberpunk syndicatism leads closer to that utopia, and it’s openly advertised as a dystopia.

I’d like to see a serious discussion on Distributism. It has an avoidance of hyperspecialization (which is going to be done by robots anyway) and central power. It does allude to that Utopia, though by individualistic not collectivist means. One should be wary of Utopian projects, but that does not mean that Paradise does not exist; only that we may never reach it.

10 Troll me February 19, 2017 at 3:21 pm

A much better perspective for understanding Marx’s views on artisanship and identity, etc., than some of the more absurd renditions this gets from people who know nothing more about Marx than BOO!!!!(communism/death/evil/Stalin/Mao/devil/devil/Marx)

11 Sam the Sham February 19, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Of course, knowing just BOO!!!!(communism/death/evil/Stalin/Mao/devil/devil/Marx) is usually sufficient knowledge, and makes one wiser than many sociology professors. For example, there’s more to know about TimeCube than crazy guy writes anti-semitic stuff, but… that covers most of it.

12 Troll me February 19, 2017 at 5:45 pm

I see. Brainwashed parrots are more expert than the experts. Good to know where you stand on such issues, Sam.

Want to talk about the failures of Stalinist and Maoist renditions of labour movements which drew inspiration from words written by Marx, among others? We can do so in gruesome detail, for what little value it may have.

You’re getting to much caught up in trying to convince yourself that you are right, and looking quite the idiot in the meantime. A little more clear thought, a little less getting taken by your own propagandeering efforts might help keep you from driving yourself straight offr the deep end.

13 Sam the Sham February 19, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Um, what? I’d be happy to talk about the kill count of Communism, and how even now some people look at Venezuela (which has now re-legalized slavery) as only down on its luck because of oil prices, not socialism.

… are you trying to defend socialism’s horrible track record, that it ‘just hasn’t been implemented right’? I have a feeling we crossed the streams, here, Nate.

14 Troll me February 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm

Do you think the Czars would have killed fewer than Stalin?

The painful lessons of communism under Stalin surely cannot be forgotten (specifically, do not use forced collectivization, a lesson demonstrated even more catastrophically the second time around 20 years later under Mao), but most of the positioning on this matter is driven by the remnants of Cold War propaganda.

15 Sam The Sham February 21, 2017 at 6:35 am

I absolutely think the czars would have killed fewer people, and exercise a more limited form of government and have more rights for their serfs-they still practiced serfdom-than with communism.

16 Nicholas Weininger February 18, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Echoes of Heinlein too: “Specialization is for insects.”

17 Ray Lopez February 18, 2017 at 11:39 pm

But also contradicts the maxim: “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

However, in a post-scarcity economics world, like was implied in a Star Trek series, the amateur hobbyist who grows their own wine, very inefficiently since they could simply use the ‘universal replicator’ to deliver a bottle of wine (or any other artifact), is highly esteemed for the very same reason Noah Webster prized Americans.

Bonus trivia: Noah Webster and Daniel Webster, the famous 19th C American pol, were indirectly related since they had a common ancestor, the nexus here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Webster_(governor), this link linking to the famous Plymouth Rock pilgrims of this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massachusetts_Bay_Colony Ala Thomas Loren Friedman (no obvious relation to Milt Friedman), the world is flat, and we are no more than six hyperlinks away from any information.

18 Thiago Ribeiro February 19, 2017 at 7:22 am

I don’t thinl so, Mr. Joseph Sisko, in Star Trek:DS9, runs his business like a well-oiled ship.

19 Sam The Sham February 19, 2017 at 7:59 am

In a world of FTL travel, transporters, time travel, and the Q Continuum, ST TNG management was by far the most unrealistic.

20 steveslr February 19, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Heinlein was almost quite good at a bunch of different jobs *, but he wound up being really good only at writing sci-fi.

* What Heinlein was second best at was probably being a head staffer. I speculate that if Heinlein’s health had held up, he would have wound up his naval career during WWII as chief of staff to Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations.

21 Brian W February 19, 2017 at 8:23 pm

Heinlein came fairly close to getting elected to the CA Senate. That would have destroyed his writing career, so let’s be grateful he was a master of only one trade.

22 ChrisA February 19, 2017 at 1:17 am

I would guess the difference between Europe and North America then was simply that Europe due to its population density was a Malthusian society while America still had plenty of surplus resources allowing dilitantism.

23 dearieme February 19, 2017 at 7:11 am

A bunch from my family went off to the Midwest in the 19th century. The attraction, according to them, was cheap land and less competition.

24 So Much For Subtlety February 19, 2017 at 1:35 am

Jane Jacobs talks somewhere about a group who settled far in the mountains. And lost pretty much all their modern technology. They could not even cut stone. They were isolated and there was plenty of land to go around. So no one bothered learning the skills of civilization.

25 Enrique February 19, 2017 at 2:57 am

Sounds like Noah Webster would have loved the Internet.

26 rayward February 19, 2017 at 9:09 am

Is this the Age of Hamiltonianism or the Age of Jeffersonianism? In China, it’s definitely the Age of Hamiltonianism. In America, it’s the Age of Jeffersonianism. That America went from being a beacon in the world under Reagan to hiding from the world under Trump, from being the shining city on the hill under Reagan to cities as war zones under Trump, from embracing the future under Reagan to grasping the past under Trump, has to be the greatest leap backwards in history. America the Brave has become America the Afraid.

27 Perovskite February 19, 2017 at 9:49 am

Even today, this insight gets at the political differences between urban and rural America, between global cosmopolitanism and rugged individualism.

28 Kris February 19, 2017 at 12:06 pm

The “rugged individualists” of rural American seem to be demanding a lot of support and protection from the state.

The global cosmopolitans seem to me to be more ruggedly individualistic than the supporters and abetters of Trump.

29 Some Guy February 19, 2017 at 12:43 pm

In Imagination Land, sure, but that’s no more real than any of the other ghost stories you idiots tell one another over lattes. One of the more remarkable aspects of the modern Left is just how quickly they believe their own bullbleep. In an attempt to besmirch Trump,the Left made up the wholly inaccurate claim that Trumps’ support from the mythical white working class that was now reduced to eating meth and living in trailers. That was never true in any way, but you idiots thought it sounded cool and now you believe it.

By the way, good idea to install an America-hating, white hating Muslim as your next cult leader. Keith Ellison will go over real well with the voters.

30 Kris February 19, 2017 at 2:13 pm

Where did that brain fart come from?

I am neither an American nor a member of the Left. I couldn’t care less who the Democratic Party in your country chooses to appoint as its leader. And your unhinged comment had nothing to do either with the OP’s comment or my response to it.

In what universe can people who: 1) demand that the government force companies to keep them hired, or in some cases hire them again, or 2) demand that the government keep out foreigners so that they don’t face competition, be called “rugged individualists”? Give me a break. These are people who want the nanny state to support them as they can’t support themselves, and simultaneously want to be called rugged individualists to boost their egos as well. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too!

31 Troll me February 19, 2017 at 3:32 pm

Well, considering that one group wants to ban foreign competition and mandate that corporations brings the jobs to their doorsteps, while the other is highly favourable to global competition and rules that favour competition rather than protectionism …. it’s probably quite accurate.

Anyways, most of your post is rather more symptomatic of brainwashing than much else. For example, delusions that have ben drummd into your skull with regard to the meaning of “Anti-American”.

Among many narratives which aimed to understand support for Trump, the trailer trash angle got perhaps more than its fair share of attention. Or did it? Should we not be trying to open things up in some manner that we can feel very open and free to discuss which concerns and/or alienation might have contributed to their views? Or do you wish to provide a superior explanation rather than flat out writing off theories generally along the lines of “it’s sad that working class poor can be convinced to vote against their interest, for example to vote for massive tax cuts for the rich when they are in a situation of net recipient of public services”.

It would be interesting to understand how/why these people vote the way they do. But if it is an evil evil attack on them to so much as mention that some group voted more for Trump than for Clinton (yes, some start from disrespect and continue with the same), then ohw on earth is there to be any forward movement for that group, a group that Trump very explicitly set out to attract, and very explicitly claims to represent and work for.

If you cannot discuss the political needs and economic wants of those who support Trump, then how the hell is the president supposed to represent them?

32 Troll me February 19, 2017 at 3:33 pm

Sorry, my dumb.

Mexican rapists and Muslim terrorists are destroying everything. I mean, statsitically speaking, they’re at least 0.01 or 0.1% of the problem.

33 cliff arroyo February 19, 2017 at 4:20 pm

“American culture can create and Edison, but it cannot and did not create an Einstein”

But it can attract an Einstein to become a citizen (while the cultures that create Einsteins can’t attract Edisons). So it’s kind of the best of both worlds….

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