My grandfather packed a pistol in his lunch pail as he went to work in the coal mines. No, that’s a familiy photo at right. Those are unnamed miners who stopped on their way to work one morning for a photographer around 1900—but I do wonder what those men had hidden in their pails.
My grandmother told me stories of relatives who escaped cougars by peeling off their jackets to confuse the scent trail. My great-grandfather killed three men in self-defense, wielding a stove iron. Later in life, he used his double-barreled shotgun to harass the tax collector. A great uncle and his nephew (only a boy) perished in a mine. In other words, they all lived routine and typical lives for their place and time. They would have marveled at how safe, secure, healthy, and long-lived we have become.
This is not uniformly true, of course. For example, millions of Americans today live in food-insecure households, as we’ve discussed before. Nonetheless, as Claude Fischer documents in Made in America, over time a growing proportion of Americans no longer feared sudden death from violence, accident, or rampant disease. Increasing numbers could count on getting enough to eat (sometimes too much, which created a new problem). A social safety net kept people out of poverty, especially the old and the young. Comfort rather than mere survival became a daily experience.
These changes “enabled early American social patterns and culture to expand and solidify,” says Fischer, “both to delineate and spread an American national character.” This included a strengthening of the principle of self-reliance. Today, self-reliance is one of the most widely held values in America, as my surveys have shown and we’ve discussed on ourValues.org. Americans today are more sentimental and emotionally attached to their babies and children, now that they can expect them to survive and thrive. And, security gave more Americans the confidence and ability to examine and improve themselves, to pursue life courses of their own choosing, and to join or leave groups at will.
Do you feel safe and secure—at least more so than your ancestors?
How do you think safety—or lack of it—has shaped America?
Care to read more about Claude Fischer’s book? He outlines many of the book’s themes in posts on his website for Made in America.
Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.