“It was a Place free from those 3 great Scourges of Mankind, Priests, Lawyers, and Physicians … the People were yet too poor to maintain these Learned Gentlemen.”



The Fluidity of Professions

THE AMERICAN PROVINCIAL AGE, we have already seen, was not an age of genius so much as an age of liberation. Its legacy was not great individual thinkers but refreshed community thinking. Old categories were shaken up, and new situations revealed unsuspected uses for old knowledge.

Colonial America was not the first age or place where such breaking of old molds had occurred. The Protestant Reformation in Europe had opposed the distinction between priest and layman, between the holders of the Keys to Heaven and the multitude who sought admission. But what the Reformers could accomplish was limited by their institutional inheritance. In England, for example, the ancient Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which were to exercise such a pervasive influence on English high culture, were a legacy of the Universal Church of the middle ages, when clergymen were a different species from laymen. The mere persistence of those great Universities perpetuated many of the old distinctions, especially those between the custodians of the sacred learning and the community at large. Provincial America was free from all this; it was therefore freer to allow a new fluidity to life and thought. The universal priesthood of all believers attained a fuller expression in American ways of daily living.

By the 18th century in Europe the departments of thought had been frozen into professional categories, into the private domains of different guilds, city companies, and associations of masters; and the professions separated the areas of thought. Every professional field of learning bore a “No Trespassing” sign duly erected by legal or customary authority. In the newer culture of America few such signs had been erected; from the sheer lack of organized monopolists, old monopolies could not be perpetuated. America broke down distinctions: where life was full of surprises, of unexplored wildernesses, and of unpredictable problems, its tasks could not be neatly divided for legal distribution. Any man who preferred the even tenor of his way, who wished to pursue his licensed trade without the competition of amateurs, intruders, or vagrants, or who was unwilling to do jobs for which he had not been legally certified was better off in England.

At least four decisive facts about colonial America promoted this new fluidity in man’s thinking about himself and about the departments of his knowledge. These were the product of no man’s foresight but of the circumstances of a New World.

Regression. When a man finds himself plunged back into the conditions of an earlier age, he inevitably discovers many things. He rediscovers forgotten uses of his tools, and learns to think about them in the cruder categories of a primitive age. The sharp stone which early man used for killing was hardly different from the one he used for cutting, but in more developed cultures there arose a distinction between “weapon” and “tool” as each of them became a more specialized implement. Thus, in 18th-century Europe, the firearm became primarily a weapon; but for the colonial American backwoodsman, who had to protect himself and his family from marauding savages and who often shot meat for his table, the distinction between weapon and tool once again had little meaning. What was true of implements was also true of institutions and occupations. Under primitive conditions, there seem to have been few distinctions among those who practiced the different modes of healing and curing—between the man who muttered the incantation, the man who inserted the knife, and the man who mixed the potion. But in 18th-century England all these tasks were distinguished: each had become the private preserve of a different group—the barber-surgeons, the doctors of physick, and the apothecaries. In America such distinctions would have been difficult to preserve; the healer (sometimes a lawyer or a governor or a clergyman) once again performed all these different tasks.

Versatility required by the unexpected. Where the round of daily life has been worn into a groove by many generations living in the same place, men can prepare simply for the tasks which their ancestors have faced before them. But not in a New World. Here the unexpected was usual, and men had to be ready for it. The layman had to be prepared to act the lawyer, the architect, and the physician, and to practice crafts which others (only to be found across the ocean) knew much better. Versatility was no longer merely a virtue; it was a necessity. The man who could not be a little bit of everything was not qualified to be an American.

The scarcity of institutions. Where institutions were scarce, they could not be sharply distinguished from each other. Even the priests of different religions gradually tended to become assimilated. Puritanism gradually became less puritanical; Episcopalianism became less bishoply and more congregational; and religions like Quakerism which would not compromise with the New World could not long govern in it. “Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations;” remarked Crèvecoeur in 1782, “thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Where this will reach no one can tell….”

The last serious colonial effort to set up a guild in the medieval mold took place in Philadelphia in 1718. Next to the occupational guilds, the most important agencies for monopolizing knowledge in the Old World had been the ancient educational institutions. But those too were lacking in America, and the New World thawed the categories of thought.

Labor-scarcity and Land-plenty. Labor and skills were scarce in colonial America; men had to do many things for themselves simply because they could not hire others to do them. Inevitably they came to set a lower standard, for otherwise a task could not have been done at all. The carpenter had to be cooper, cabinetmaker, and cobbler. The printer became writer, paper-manufacturer, binder, ink-maker, postmaster, and public figure. Land-plenty meant that even as a farmer the American generally needed to be much less efficient in order to make a living. Where men could “use up” their land, where they took for granted large tracts in reserve for the future, they lacked an incentive which prodded 18th-century English agriculture to reforms. Where everything, including the old homestead, was for sale, men were less attached to any particular piece of land. Once it ceased to support them, they would move on. Land itself lost many of its ancient legal and social peculiarities. The making of a living here required less specialization. At least for free white colonials, there were many different ways of earning a living and it was easy to change one’s trade or the place where one practiced it.

“Strangers are welcome,” Franklin explained in his Information to those who would remove to America (1782), “because there is room enough for them all, and therefore the old Inhabitants are not jealous of them.” Since land was cheap, any diligent young man could rise. “Hence there is a continual Demand for more Artisans of all the necessary and useful kinds, to supply those Cultivators of the Earth with Houses, and with Furniture and Utensils of the grosser sorts, which cannot so well be brought from Europe. Tolerably good Workmen in any of those mechanic Arts are sure to find Employ, and to be well paid for their Work, there being no Restraints preventing Strangers from exercising any Art they understand, nor any Permission necessary.” In America, he observed, everyone might hope and expect to become a Master, for any industrious young man could secure an apprenticeship which might have been too expensive for him in Europe. “In America, the rapid Increase of Inhabitants takes away that Fear of Rivalship, and Artisans willingly receive Apprentices from the hope of Profit by their Labour, during the Remainder of the Time stipulated, after they shall be instructed. Hence it is easy for poor Families to get their Children instructed; for the Artisans are so desirous of Apprentices, that many of them will even give Money to the Parent, to have Boys from Ten to Fifteen Years of Age bound Apprentices to them till the Age of Twenty-one; and many poor Parents have, by the means, on their Arrival in the Country, raised Money enough to buy Land sufficient to establish themselves, and to subsist the rest of their Family by Agriculture.”

* * *

A new and fruitful social vagueness thus came into being in America. The ancient, familiar, and respectable idea of a “calling” had been displaced by the idea of opportunity. Historians in recent years have written a great deal about the change which supposedly occurred in Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation. In contrast to the medieval Catholic view, according to Max Weber, all Protestant denominations took a novel view of men’s occupations. This new view, says R. H. Tawney, required a man to give thought to his “choice” of a calling. But, in fact, European life offered very little choice to mostmen; they had no freedom but to perform the tasks to which their own family station assigned them. In Europe to hallow a man’s “calling” was simply to sanctify his efficiency in his traditional job.

Few American men dared look to their inherited stations to define their callings. They had to look to their opportunities, to the unforeseen openings of the American situation. Where a rapid-flowing life informed a man of his tasks, he would be lost if he anchored himself to any fixed role. No prudent man dared be too certain of exactly who he was or what he was about; everyone had to be prepared tobecome someone else. To be ready for such perilous transmigrations was to become an American.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!