Henry Bellows was a Unitarian minister from New York City who wrote the
following piece as a commentary on the effects of the “go ahead” attitude in
America in the mid-nineteenth century.
What is Bellows’s critique of the
American character and what remedies does he/might he propose?
Henry W. Bellows, “The Influence of the Trading Spirit upon the
Social and Moral Life in America” (1845).
All strangers who come among us remark the excessive anxiety written in the
American countenance. The widespread comfort, the facilities for livelihood,
the spontaneous and cheap lands, the high price of labor, are equally
observed, and render it difficult to account for these lines of painful
thoughtfulness. It is not poverty, nor tyranny, nor overcompetition which
produces this anxiety; that is clear. It is the concentration of the faculties
upon an object, which in its very nature is unattainable--the perpetual
improvement of the outward condition. There are no bounds among us to the
restless desire to be better off; and this is the ambition of all classes of
society. We are not prepared to allow that wealth is more valued in America
than elsewhere, but in other countries the successful pursuit of it is
necessarily confined to a few, while here it is open to all. No man in America
is contented to be poor, or expects to continue so. There are here no
established limits within which the hopes of any class of society must be
confined, as in other countries. There is consequently no condition of hopes
realized, in other words, of contentment. In other lands, if children can
maintain the station and enjoy the means, however moderate, of their father,
they are happy. Not so with us. This is not the spirit of our institutions. Nor
will it long be otherwise in other countries. That equality, that breaking
down of artificial barriers which has produced this universal ambition and
restless activity in America, is destined to prevail throughout the earth.
But because we are in advance of the world in the great political principle,
and are now experiencing some of its first effects, let us not mistake these for