People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character

People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character

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by David M. Potter
America has long been famous as a land of plenty, but we seldom realize how much the American people are a people of plenty—a people whose distinctive character has been shaped by economic abundance. In this important book, David M. Potter breaks new ground both in the study of this phenomenon and in his approach to the question of national character. He


America has long been famous as a land of plenty, but we seldom realize how much the American people are a people of plenty—a people whose distinctive character has been shaped by economic abundance. In this important book, David M. Potter breaks new ground both in the study of this phenomenon and in his approach to the question of national character. He brings a fresh historical perspective to bear on the vital work done in this field by anthropologists, social psychologists, and psychoanalysts.

"The rejection of hindsight, with the insistence on trying to see events from the point of view of the participants, was a governing theme with Potter. . . . This sounds like a truism. Watching him apply it however, is a revelation."—Walter Clemons, Newsweek

"The best short book on national character I have seen . . . broadly based, closely reasoned, and lucidly written."—Karl W. Deutsch, Yale Review

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People of Plenty

Economic Abundance and the American Character

By David M. Potter

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1954 The University of Chicago Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-67633-3


The Historians and National Character

After remaining for ages almost entirely in the hands of historians, the study of national character has recently undergone a transformation which illustrates the strangeness of the tricks that time can play: it has passed very largely into the hands of medical men. Of this extraordinary development I shall have more to say later, but at the very outset it seems appropriate to note that this subject which has so recently been returned to the care of the physicians began with a physician in the first place. The earliest recorded disquisition on national character was put in writing in the fifth century before Christ by that distinguished medical practitioner, Hippocrates. In part he said: "The chief reason why Asiatics are less warlike and more gentle in character than Europeans is the uniformity of the seasons, which show no violent changes.... For there occur no mental shocks [to the people] ... which are more likely to steel the temper and impart to it a fierce passion than is monotonous sameness. For it is changes of all things that rouse the temper of man and prevent its stagnation. For these reasons, I think, Asiatics are feeble. Their institutions are a contributory cause, the greater part of Asia being governed by kings. Now where men are not their own masters and independent, ... they are not keen on military efficiency.... All their worthy, brave deeds merely serve to aggrandize ... their lords while the harvest they themselves reap is danger and death.... [But] all the inhabitants of Asia, whether Greek or non-Greek, who are not ruled by despots, but are independent, toiling for their own advantage, are the most warlike of all men. For it is for their own sakes that they run their risks, and in their own persons do they receive the prizes of their valour as likewise the penalty of their cowardice."

It seems valid to regard Hippocrates as the first writer on the subject of national character, because he approached it consciously as a problem of generalization about groups of people, while other writers did not do this. But even a few years earlier than Hippocrates, Herodotus had offered some comments in very much the same vein on the character of the Athenians. Their history, he suggested, was proof "that equality is a good thing," for "while they were under despotic rulers the Athenians were no better in war than any of their neighbours, yet once they got quit of despots they were far and away the first of all. This, then, shows that while they were oppressed they willed to be cravens, as men working for a master, but when they were freed, each one was zealous to achieve for himself."

With that extraordinarily modern outlook so often evident in the Greeks, Hippocrates and Herodotus had, for a moment, anticipated the concepts of behavioral scientists twenty-five centuries later. These scientists were to make close analysis of the effects of oppression, caste, and authoritarian control upon personality and were to emerge with findings not unlike those of the Greek physician and the Greek historian.

Although these are apparently the earliest statements about national character that have survived from ancient times, it would be a mistake to exaggerate either the priority of these writers in originating the concept or their influence in the later development of the idea. For the practice of attributing group characteristics to bodies of people is apparently as old as the sense of group identity itself—that is, it is an aspect of ethnocentrism—and the countless subsequent expressions of such generalization have been voiced as freely by the ignorant as by the readers of Greek literature.

Within the sequence of literature itself the influence of these writers was very largely neutralized, if not completely dissipated, by the writings, during the following century, of Aristotle, on the same subject. Whereas Hippocrates and Herodotus had recognized that character would change with changing conditions, such as varying degrees of authoritarianism, Aristotle presented it as fixed and unchanging. It must be said to his credit that he did not make the error of supposing that character remains constant because it is inherited in the genes—he was not a racist—but he did stress the impact of permanent conditions of climate which would cause permanent traits of character. Moreover, he extended the concept of character differences to involve not only the idea of dissimilarities but also that of inequalities, for he conceived of the Hellenic people as having the capacity of ruling the world if they could be united into one state. These ideas of the immutability of national character and of the superiority of the peoples of a given character group have, unfortunately, shown as much vigor as did the idea that distinctive character may evolve where distinctive conditions are at work.

These theories of the distinctiveness of the character of various peoples have gained singularly ready and widespread acceptance at the hands of writers in every country and in every age. The ease with which such beliefs have won adoption requires some explanation, and I shall return to this problem a little later. Meanwhile, it may be said that probably no other class of writers has trafficked in this concept of national character so heavily as have historians. The theme of the historian almost invariably has been the story of a specific people or a specific country, and historians have found in the theory of national character a basic device for differentiating their particular subjects and, very often, for attributing special virtues to the people of whom they write. If this was true before the advent of modern nationalism, it has been vastly more so since then, when, in the case of writers like Treitschke in Germany, Lamartine in France, or Bancroft in the United States, national glorification has been the essential function of history, and the recognition of national traits has been the means for demonstrating national superiority. Among the nationalist historians, including many who avoided the extremes of chauvinism, the concept of national character became, therefore, the one dominant historical assumption which pervaded the treatment of all their material.

The extent to which historians have relied upon this assumption could probably be illustrated from the historical literature of any country, but, since I am personally most familiar with the American branch of the literature and since other parts of this book deal with the question of American national character, it may be well to draw upon American history for an illustration and to recognize how widely the concept of a distinctive American character has been adopted by American historians.

Among the more prominent American historical writers, there is hardly one who does not, either occasionally or constantly, explicitly or implicitly, invoke the idea of an American national character. Without attempting to be thorough, one may easily note a few examples. Henry Steele Commager tells us that it cannot be doubted that "by some alchemy, out of the blending of inheritance, environment, and experience, there came a distinctive American character." Allan Nevins, in his Ordeal of the Union, begins by delineating "the virtues and vices of the national character," as it manifested itself at the middle of the nineteenth century. Arthur M. Schlesinger has devoted one of his most famous essays to making a list of specific national characteristics in answer to Crèvecæur's famous question, "What then is the American, this new man?" Samuel E. Morison, when writing his Oxford History, did not hesitate to undertake a description of the American character at various stages of our history, even though he found it "so complex ... that the excess of one quality was balanced by the excess of its reverse." James Truslow Adams wrote an entire book, The American, "to find out ... the difference between the real and the merely legal American," for he felt no doubt that the American "is different ... from the citizen of any other nation." But perhaps the most conclusive illustration is Turner's classic essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." It is sometimes forgotten that the primary purpose of that essay was to explain the differentiation of the American from the European and to show why certain traits were dominant in the American strain.

Even among historians who have been more cautious in making explicit use of the concept of national character, extended study is given to American attitudes or beliefs which could hardly be supposed to exist in a distinctive form unless they were associated with a distinctive personality or character. Thus, Charles and Mary Beard have generalized about the American spirit and about American civilization; Vernon Parrington, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Merle Curti about American thought; Albert Bushnell Hart about American ideals; Louis M. Hacker and Louis B. Wright about the American tradition; Denis W. Brogan about the American character; and various writers about the American mind. That a typical national spirit or thought or tradition or mind or set of ideals could have developed without the development of a typical national character is at least doubtful.

The concept of national character, then, ranks as a major historical assumption and one which has colored the writing of a vast body of historical literature. It might be supposed that, in the case of such a basic concept, far-reaching attention would have been given to the rationale of the subject and that the idea would have been defined and elaborated with rigor and precision. Yet the fact is that historians have done very little either to clarify or to validate this concept which they employ so freely. The looseness with which the term "national character" is used and the inconsistent meanings which attach to it are striking evidence of the lack of adequate analysis. Because of these deficiencies, and especially because of the way in which the idea of national character got mixed up with doctrines of race, the entire concept has been called into very serious question, and it will be necessary, at a later point in this discussion, to examine this philosophical rejection of the concept. First, however, the inadequacies, the abuses, and the confusion in the use of the concept by historians need to be scrutinized.

The most basic ambiguity of all is that historians vary widely in their notion as to what constitutes national character. To some writers it implies an absolute quality, persisting without change from one generation to another and manifesting itself universally in all the individuals who compose the national group. To others it is little more than a statistical tendency for the individuals in one country at a particular time to evince a given trait in higher proportion than the individuals of some other country. This approach is essentially relativistic, and it contrasts with the absolute approach both in regarding national traits as changing responses to changing conditions and in regarding national character as something which may be found in a large enough proportion of the people (and which exists as national character, pragmatically, only because it is found in them) rather than as something which inheres in all the people (and is found in them, mystically, because it is the national character).

Despite the insight which Hippocrates and Herodotus had originally shown in recognizing that, if conditions determine character, character will change with conditions, it was unfortunately true that many later historical writers seemed to accept the absolute view, which ultimately found its most extreme expression in the early nineteenth century. Today it can no longer be taken seriously in its literal form, and we can only smile at such manifestations as Herder's assertion that the Teutonic vocal apparatus was naturally formed for the enunciation of German speech and that it would be a perversion for the Teutonic larynx to dally with any other language. But, in a more subtle form, the concept of a character which is shared in common by all the people still commands impressive support. For instance, Otto Bauer has argued that national character is far more than a mere similarity of traits in diverse individuals and that it is, rather, a "community of character." Community of character, he contended, does not imply that individuals of the same nation will be similar to one another but that "the same force has acted on the character of each individual.... While ... similarity of character can only be observed in the majority of the members of the nation, the community of character, the fact that they all are the products of one and the same effective force, is common to all of them without exception."

Many other writers whose view is far less carefully refined than Bauer's have held to the absolute point of view by setting up what Weber would have called "ideal typical" images to personify the character of given nations and then evaluating individual citizens according to the extent to which they correspond to these types. Thus John Bull remains the "typical Englishman," and the old-fashioned Yankee remains the "typical American" for many writers, despite the fact that the vast majority in the English and the American population do not now conform to these types, if, indeed, they ever did. In this case, there is no longer a mystical assertion that all Englishmen or all Americans are alike, but there is still an arbitrary assumption that specific qualities are peculiarly British or American and that the extent to which an individual is truly British or American depends upon the extent to which he possesses these qualities.

Against these fixed notions of national character, the few critics who concern themselves with the subject have made such headway as they can. Writers like Hans Kohn and Carlton J. H. Hayes have shown clearly that traits which are deemed most intrinsic to the "character" of a nation will change markedly and rapidly as historical circumstances change. Thus at the beginning of the eighteenth century the English were considered volatile and unstable in political affairs, while the French seemed steady and even phlegmatic by comparison. But a century later these conceptions had been reversed, and it was the French who were regarded as political weathercocks. Other writers have accepted the idea that traits of national character are essentially tendencies which ebb and flow with the waxing and waning of historical forces. For instance, Frederick Jackson Turner conceived of American traits as developing under the impact of frontier forces, and he spoke with foreboding of what would happen to these traits when the frontier no longer existed to perpetuate them.

But, though many historians have adopted these more tenable concepts of what constitutes national character, most of them have done so implicitly, without much discussion of their premises, and the fact remains that there is no agreement, no uniform understanding, within the profession, as to what is meant by "national character" or as to what elements go to make it up.

Not only have historians failed to agree on what they mean by "national character"; they have also failed to agree on what kind of qualities should be taken into account as composing it. There is a vast difference between mere traits of behavior, such as writing from left to right or eating with a fork, which a given people may have in common, and traits of character, in which a deeply intrenched system of values is involved. It is to this difference that David Riesman alludes when he says that "cultural differences, no matter how forcefully they may strike the ear, the eye, or the nose, are not necessarily correlated with character differences of equal significance." It would be a difficult task to draw a hard-and-fast theoretical distinction between cultural traits and character traits, for when modes of behavior are continued over a long period, society tends to attribute value to them, and where values are involved, character is involved, for character might almost be defined as the individual's system or complex of values. Erich Fromm has stated this relationship between behavior and character with remarkable clarity, as follows: "In order that any society may function well, its members must acquire the kind of character which makes them want to act in the way they have to act as members of the society or of a special class within it. They have to desire what objectively is necessary for them to do. Outer force is to be replaced by inner compulsion and by the particular kind of human energy which is channeled into character traits."

But, though no one can be expected to make a rigorous distinction between traits of behavior and traits of character, it is easy to see that if we follow Fromm in regarding character as a force exercising inner compulsion, we must reject large segments of the data which historians have used in describing national character. For they have often lumped together indiscriminately the basic traits which play a dynamic part in shaping character and the mere extraneous practices which serve as visible recognition signs by which the underlying character traits may be perceived. Very often a catalogue of traits ranges from the profound to the trivial. Thus we may be told in the same breath that Americans are optimistic (a trait of temperament), that they attach great value to productive activity (a trait of character), that they are fond of jazz music (a cultural trait), and that they are remarkably prone to join organized groups (a behavioral trait which may provide overt evidence of some underlying trait of character). In the. discussion of national character it probably would not be either practicable or rewarding to enforce these distinctions rigidly, but analysis of the subject would not be quite so loose as it is if writers had at least recognized that traits of character are at one level and distinctive habits, such as addiction to some particular article of diet, are at quite another.


Excerpted from People of Plenty by David M. Potter. Copyright © 1954 The University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David M. Potter (1910-1971) was a professor of history at Yale University and, at the time of his death, Coe Professor of American History at Stanford University.

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People of Plenty 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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