Thomas Gold Appleton was Boston’s Bohemian Tory, the merry wit of the “Athens of America.” He evinced a joyful Tory sensibility that disdained class consciousness, rejected the conception of liberty as the absence of restraint, critiqued fashionable ideas of equality and democracy, and believed the best life was loyalty to people and places.
In the early 1820s in a Federal home on Boston’s Beacon Hill, three little boys played together. One was John Lothrop Motley, later diplomat, historian, and author of seven volumes of Dutch history. The second was Wendell Phillips, soon-to-be fiery abolitionist attorney who would welcome Southern secession as a way to rid the United States of slavery. The third boy was the oldest son of one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest magnates, Thomas Gold Appleton. “Every Saturday afternoon, in the garret of Motley’s house, the three friends, dressed in cloaks and doublets, had acted impromptu melodramas,” the literary historian Van Wyck Brooks wrote. “Pretending that they were bandits and heroes of Byron, they spouted scraps of poetry to one another.” While the first two entered a life of politics and public service, “Tom” Appleton decided upon the life of a nineteenth-century aesthete, dedicated to art, travel, and trenchant observations on the American republic.
Russell Kirk defined the “Bohemian Tory,” taking his cue from Samuel Johnson, as “a man attached to orthodoxy in church and state. A bohemian is a wandering and often impecunious man of letters and arts, indifferent to the demands of bourgeois fad and foible… Tory and bohemian go not ill together; it is quite possible to abide by the norms of civilized existence, what Mr. T.S. Eliot calls ‘the permanent things’: and yet to set at defiance the soft securities and sham conventionalities of twentieth-century sociability.” An archetypical nineteenth-century figure, Appleton rejected the life of business and law—both of which his wealthy father insisted he pursue—to become a Bohemian observer of human quirks and prevailing Victorian political and social ideas. His poetry and prose could be pithy and unsparing, and although friendly with Emerson he was no Emersonian. He evinced a joyful Tory sensibility that disdained class consciousness, rejected the conception of liberty as the absence of restraint, critiqued fashionable ideas of equality and democracy, and believed the best life was loyalty to people and places. Appleton was Boston’s Bohemian Tory, the merry wit of the “Athens of America.”
Thomas Gold Appleton found his birthdate of March 31, 1812 to be a disappointment. “I just missed being an April fool,” he later quipped. Nathan Appleton, a core member of the “Boston Associates” who controlled New England’s banks, factories, and railroads, expected his sons to attend the best schools. Thus, as a young man, Tom Appleton entered the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts operated by the education reformer Joseph Cogswell and the Europeanized Boston historian (and later Democratic politician) George Bancroft. The school’s classical curriculum demanded much of its students, but the pastoral location entranced young Appleton as much as learning Latin and Greek. His country tramps as a student worked to “stimulate imagination with desire and mystery” and encouraged a lifetime of travel. “[T]he side influences of Round Hill were, perhaps, the best part of it, and are certainly what scholars love and remember the longest… At the foot of the eminence, shining through orchard bowers was the then stately town of Jonathan Edwards; and, through the rich distance, glimpses of the indolent circuits of the Connecticut were seen.” Although he lauded Cogswell in his later recollections, one wonders if Bancroft was the real influence on the young man. Bancroft spent years at European universities learning languages, literature, and history, and returned to shock proper Boston with garish dress and foreign phrases. “He had half-forgotten the English language,” Brooks remarked. Appleton closely followed his teacher’s path.
Harvard College followed after Round Hill and Appleton graduated with the class of 1831. His father pushed him into law and after study (he greatly enjoyed Blackstone) was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1838 and opened a small office. Instead of pursuing clients, he used the office as a hideaway for writing. “He kept all sorts of books in his office. It was a great place for reading poetry—anything except law,” a family historian related. “An office was perfect for writing poetry, essays, humorous items the newspapers published—anything except briefs.” One day while on a walk he met his chum Wendell Phillips, who asked if he managed to acquire any clients. “No, thank God,” Appleton replied. Both men then agreed to swear off the law, Phillips to take up the abolitionist cause, Appleton to leave the country for Europe for a life of arts and letters.
Abandoning the law meant upsetting his father and drawing a stark contrast with other young men entering the professions. The guilty Appleton felt their gaze. But he hated the work and intended to be an artist. He declared to friends that a life in business or law would be wasting his life. “I cannot see that a man, improving his character and mind, living modestly on a moderate income, is wholly despicable. If he tries to do good and to find the truth and speak it, I cannot see that he is inferior to a man who merely toils, nobly to be sure, but still without leaving himself time for much of these.” He was also temperamentally unsuited to the requirements of a career, lacking attention to detail, patience, concentration, and focus. He called the life he chose a Bohemian one, in contrast to Philistinism:
It is the protest in society, by the emotional part of it—the lovers of truth, beauty, grace, for their own sakes—against the orderly but somewhat stupid phalanx of labor, routine, and good sense. It is the cry of revolt from the powers of the air against the patient forces which are subduing and shaping the earth. Probably the world has always seen this antagonism: everywhere winged and subtle minds must have found themselves unclassed by orderly and logical thinkers.
Yet the two groups mistrusted one another and lived in an uneasy truce. “Secretly, at the bottom, each hates and despises the other… One will call the honorable millionaire ‘a brute of business;’ the other will cast to him, as to a beggar, scanty alms of praise or profit.” Despite his father’s disapproval, the Appleton purse opened and he used the funds to explore the world.
Between 1830 and 1860, Tom Appleton crossed the Atlantic thirty-eight times, sometimes staying overseas for years at a time, befriending artists and writers, and trying his own hand at painting and drawing. He adored England, made fast friends of the literati—Thackeray, Dickens, Carlyle, and the Brownings were all companions—and felt a romantic kinship between the New England Brahmin and the British gentleman. “The English lawn, the hanging wood, the castle’s tower cresting its top, the village church, seem his; and indeed, he loves England with a love no Englishman can feel for it. He sees it as the Israelites may have seen the towers of Jerusalem after their songs of heart-break in a foreign land.” While he loved Paris and French food, he was less keen on the French, “a very strange people” whom it was “easier to like… than to esteem them.” Yet, his presence in Paris was often fortuitous, allowing him to witness historic events in French history. Seeing Appleton as an important American, a French nobleman invited him to participate in the Marquis de Lafayette’s funeral cortege in 1834. The peer also gently prodded his young acquaintance: “The most dangerous man in France, and [Lafayette] is well laid away in his family vault in the Picpus graveyard. With him lies buried the republic; and in America, even, you will soon be of our opinion, and desire the dignity and comfort of a monarchy.” The desire never surfaced in him. Appleton remained a firm republican of the John Adams school all his life.
Most interesting, and revealing of Appleton’s politics, was his presence in Paris for the 1848 revolution. Unlike many foreigners, he lingered in France instead of fleeing and in May 1848 witnessed a mob invade the National Assembly chamber. In his recollections, the witty sarcastic Appleton was on full display. “[All] the doors above and below were forced, and a miscellaneous mass of perspiring patriots invaded the building. No check, no remonstrance with them… The spectacle was terribly entertaining, but also alarming. These men did not know what they wanted, nor how to get it; but they wanted something dreadful.” When a revolutionary gamin spied Appleton’s fancy waistcoat, he ominously approached, assumed the American was a French aristocrat, and declared, “You see the case we make of the aristocrats below.” Appleton then tapped the man on the shoulder with his cane and replied, “My lad, you are mistaken; I am a republican, but belong to a republic which can keep on its legs; and where it is often the sign of a man of the people to be as well dressed as I am. Let us hope that you will finally come to that here.” The gamin slinked away.
The drama did not conclude there, as the revolutionaries blocked all doors and Appleton searched for an escape route, finally climbing over a wall just in time to witness the arrival of French National Guard troops to quell the uprising. He welcomed their quick work of the revolutionaries:
When in the street, I saw what I can never forget. It stood for the triumph of good over evil, of order over disorder, of legal force over mob violence. The bridge was wholly empty, and on its farther side, moving with the silent celerity of doom, was a semicircle of bayonets. Never have I seen guns express so much as did those. It was blue sky after tempest; the sun played upon their shining points as if adding its blessing to their brightness.
Appleton then retreated to his hotel “where a warm bath washed a good deal of the liberté, fraternité, egalité out of me.” Returning in 1850, he welcomed the arrival of Napoleon III and his counter-revolutionary aims. “The Reds are kept at bay, but they stand firm on the grand ground of pillage; no reason, argument, reaches them,” he wrote. “It is the finest dramatic exhibition of Satan and the Spirit of Good, in dialogue, which, I suppose, the world has seen for ages.”
The New England Wit
Appleton arrived back in America in 1854 and his foreign adventures began to slacken, settling back in New England to become a Brahmin gentleman. His sister Fanny married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1843, and the poet and the wit became best friends. For several years, they were next-door neighbors in Cambridge and in the 1850s jointly purchased a “cottage” in Nahant where Appleton could paint in peace and Longfellow could compose his poetry. Cooking and consuming clam chowder nearly every day at his seaside retreat, he dubbed Nahant “Cold Roast Boston.” Appleton also plunged into Boston’s club and dinner party life, becoming a popular guest. “He was a dangerous friend to meet at a time when one’s nervous energy was exhausted,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. remembered. “No man, no man of his generation certainly, pervaded the social atmosphere of this breezy centre of life so completely.” At the legendary Saturday Club, which counted every major Boston writer, artist, and scholar as a member—Emerson, Motley, Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louis Agassiz, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier, among many others—he engaged in debate and witticisms leaving behind few enemies and a string of admirers.
The dinner club circuit allowed Appleton to demonstrate his rejection of stern Puritanism, the faith of his forefathers. He regretted that “Heaven has sent us its food, and the Puritan has sent us his cook,” and railed against the austerity of New England cuisine. Spoiled by years of French cooking, he half-joked that within “twenty miles of [Boston], you touch this dreadful atheism which spurns the gift of the Creator.” His Irish cook Bridget, however, learned his favorite recipes and apparently satisfied his insistence on fine food. Appleton’s criticism of Puritanism did not lead him away from religious faith. He easily combined his gourmand propensities with life as a Unitarian, where “the distempered dream of Calvin has melted like some vapor of the night, [and] Unitarianism finds itself fronting, with serene and smiling assurance, all that learning and science can teach the world of its Maker.”
Appleton exercised his quick wit on fellow New Englanders, and Longfellow’s son recalled that “He simply could not help being original and funny; not like some humorists who have to have an appreciative audience.” It was Appleton who first quipped “All good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” afterwards repeated in Holmes’ Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. When one of editor James T. Fields’ daughters asked why he always carried a horse chestnut with him, he replied: “I have carried this [horse-chestnut] in my pocket these ten years, and in all that time have had no touch of rheumatism. Indeed, its action is retrospective, for I have never had rheumatism before.” For one of his sojourns to Newport, Rhode Island, he brought with him his young secretary, the painter Sarah Hale, scandalizing some residents. A minister’s daughter asked, “Is it true that Miss Hale is living alone with you at your cottage?” Appleton answered, “Yes. Did you expect me to bring all my harem from Boston?” Another time, reflecting on whether life was worth living, he mused “I should say that it depended on the liver.”
Appleton’s sense of humor and popularity insulated him against political blowback. Like his father, he was no abolitionist. Nathan Appleton earned notoriety in the 1840s and 1850s for his opposition to the Free Soil movement and its potential for destroying the Union. He famously engaged in a newspaper duel with John Gorham Palfrey in 1846, after the latter accused him of being a “Cotton Whig” who helped incite the Mexican War to expand slavery. The senior Appleton was also among the most passionate backers of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860 and its promise to reform Massachusetts as “a new and necessary barrier against the rising flood of public abuse, and to purge its prevailing sentiment, so far as possible, from the effects of that extraordinary medley of religion, philanthropy, fanaticism, and politics.”
While Tom Appleton sympathized with his father’s politics “in favor of moderation and compromise,” abolitionist moral intensity struck him as a simplistic view of antebellum America: “One would have thought there was but one virtue in the world, and that they had the monopoly on it.” He gently poked abolitionist reformers in his postwar poem “Growl of a Doughface”:
I say, you love much, but show it by libelling,
And as a projectile at times bring the Bible in,
That a sermon stuffed full of too compact benevolence,
Hurts as much as a “Lancaster” aimed by malevolence…
Robespierre wore bouquets on important occasions;
He, too, graces with flowers his Sunday orations;
From what once swayed the heart he makes easy severance,
Gives for meekness conceit; for devotion, irreverence.
Yet, considering the case of his late friend Charles Sumner, he uneasily mused over the tension between conscience and order. The senator agitated because the Republic rested upon “dangerous foundations,” yet Brahmin conservatives like himself also loved their country. “It was loyalty to the duty that was nearest which made them seem to disregard the oral meaning of the time,” he explained in retrospect. “They hated slavery as much as any, but they loved America even more than they hated that.” Appleton insisted he and his father were as much patriots as the firmest abolitionist.
The Brahmin Builder
The Boston Brahmins were champion institution builders, studding the city with a medley of lasting political, social, and cultural institutions, and upon his return from Europe, Appleton eagerly worked to perpetuate them. He served as trustee of the Boston Public Library and Boston Athenaeum, helped found the Museum of Fine Arts, and organized the erection of the city’s Benjamin Franklin statue. A lover of opera from his time in Europe, he promoted it in Boston and New York, and played a lead role in furthering the career of Italian-trained American singer Elise Hensler, who later married the former king of Portugal Ferdinand II to become the Countess of Edla. The two remained friends the rest of his life. He also eagerly supported the filling of Boston’s Back Bay to expand the city’s footprint. Indeed, he built a new home on Back Bay’s Commonwealth Avenue facing the Public Garden, into which he deposited his prodigious collection of books and art. “[H]e planted a library and built a house around it,” the Literary World joked.
Ensconced in his new home, he looked upon the city with that Brahmin pride that so irritated other Americans. This second Athens birthed the best of American culture, he believed. “Not only here is the best English written in America by poets whose thoughts seem to have clarified themselves in the pure sky of Attica, but the thunder of the rostrum, as well as its music from the lips of a Webster and an Everett, echo with something of the class perfection of Demosthenes and the silver-tongued orators of Greece.” Yet he also recognized that love of Boston was larger than simple parochialism, but revealed that Tory love of place was the rooted affection for the particular framed by family and history. He recognized it in other Americans too:
Our spirits get welded in to its stone, brick, and mortar; we are its inhabitants, and finally, in some degree, its expression; ‘a Bostonian’ means incarnated Boston, in a way he can never know; but other cities see it in him, and we see their city in others… the Philadelphian, whose mysterious ground of attachment to his native town is not so clear to others; have they not both taken up something from their residence which makes them what they are? This mystery of a Philadelphian’s attachment to his native town is something which makes it differ from that which others have for dwelling-places. In Europe, he is not quite content. He misses his Chestnut Street. I was once with a distinguished lady of Philadelphia making the rounds by torch-light and moonlight of the upper gradin of the Coliseum, when she interrupted her delight to explain how much she missed Philadelphia.
Appleton did not begrudge this love; he shared it, after all. Yet he also feared it was a fading glory, like that of ancient Greece, following the “cruel law of this world” that great cultures like flowers flow through a cycle of birth and decay.
After the Civil War and beginning to show his age, he made a few last trips overseas and settled down to publishing. Most evenings after dinner he dictated his thoughts to Sarah Hale, who helped edit and organize the compositions. These dictated chapters were eventually printed in book form as Sheaf of Papers (1875), Windfalls (1877), and Chequer-Work (1879), but as his health began to fade, the dictation stopped. After suffering a fall on the ice in the 1870s, he circulated less frequently on the dinner party circuit and remained home. He also began to lose his hearing, yet even here remained light-hearted. When a friend blamed an excess of ear wax, he replied, “Oh no: not wax, but wane.” On a return trip from Washington, DC in 1884, he caught cold and then pneumonia, telling friends as he realized he was dying, “How interesting all this is. It will be a new experience.” He died in New York City on April 17, 1884.
Appleton’s Commentary on America
Tom Appleton was no systematic thinker and his Bohemian tastes often led him into eccentric side interests. Despite being discredited as a pseudo-science, Phrenology fascinated him and while he admitted it had “the flavor of charlatanism,” he detected its presence in sculpture, painting, and literature like crime and mystery novels, where the heroes were handsome or beautiful and the villains described as having ominous countenances. The deaths of his mother just after his college graduation and that of his father and sister Fanny five days apart in 1861 (the latter burned to death when her dress caught fire) started an interest in spiritualism. Sarah Hale recalled that “At all times, his sense of the nearness of those who have left us was active; his faith in the unseen ran, like a bright thread, through all his currents of thought.” Appleton turned away from spiritualism in his last Boston years but continued to believe that “with the advance of time, the slight barrier between [the living and the dead] may be broken down.” An intellectual omnivore, he left behind no philosophy, theory, or school of thought. Indeed, he detested theorists who speculated airily from the comfort of their couch: “A theorist is never content to leave well alone, and he even quarrels with a good result if not in accordance with his notions.” His writings reflect those of a Bohemian Tory recollecting experiences of a life thoroughly enjoyed. On the nature of America, Appleton’s observations revolved around three major themes: the futility of pursuing equality, the perils inherent in democracy, and America’s “touch and go” suspicion of permanence.
The Darwinian evolutionary thesis greatly impacted Appleton’s view of the world, as it did many in Victorian America, and shaped his understanding of equality. Nature and our genealogy shape our ends as much as the environment, he believed. Education did not create genius; it developed the genius that nature bestowed upon its recipient. Men do not choose their ends; they assent to them. “So necessary is this consent of Nature to success, that one is almost led to guess that at the appointed moment she whispers her secret in the ear of the favored discoverer, lo! the steamship, the photograph, the telegraph are born.” This mysterious process of the natural gradation of talent, the planting of brilliance among us, should not be feared or curbed out of a misplaced egalitarian zeal. It should be welcomed as a benefit to all. “So at last we begin to suspect that the wit of man is only one of the forces of Nature—a puppet which the unseen artist directs and manages; happy should he be to accept such a confederacy and such a copartnership.” Therefore, the Declaration of Independence left Appleton cold; life shows instead that “men are born helpless and unequal,” and he enjoyed the irony that a Southern slaveholder like Jefferson “should have been the one to put the rights of man so strongly.”
American ideas of equality were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, egalitarianism represented an absurd American creed. “Perhaps there is no dogma, in a certain sense, that is more imbedded in the popular heart than that form of ‘one man is as good as another,’ which makes the people believe in general ability as equal to anything.” Good Americans mistrusted professors, experts, specialists, anyone who claimed a knowledge or wisdom not had by the many. It smelled of exclusivity or privilege. In response, too many of Appleton’s fellow citizens trusted those without understanding and saw ignorance as a democratic virtue. Instead of trusting the doctor, try itinerant patent medicine peddlers instead; the former was an elitist, the latter a man of the people. “The people love quacks,” he observed. “‘Why can’t a clever fellow do it as well as one of them diploma people?’ It loves to trust the guesswork, and risks its most precious possession from preference with the most audacious charlatan.” On the other hand, a remarkable lack of hard class distinctions marked American society. The rich and poor circulated among each other:
Nothing in America is better than the directness of relation of people to each other. A conductor converses with the president without either party being false to the simple relations of manhood. We find this nowhere else, and it is very precious, because it expresses, somewhat ideally, the central conception of a republic—an equality at bottom which the accidents of birth and money should not be allowed to disturb.
This mingling ease set the United States apart from the European empires like France, whose quasi-caste systems were too often roiled by revolution, as he witnessed firsthand in 1848.
American egalitarianism fed its democratic impulse, often for ill, creating what he called the “Kingdom of Commonplace.” If equality loved quacks, democracy elected them. Without naming names, Appleton marked the shift toward venal rulers with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. “Our numbers were less; the fatal poison of the Doctrine of Spoils had not been tested, nor indeed, in the simplicity of life, were spoils to be gathered with such dangerous facility; but as riches swelled and living became more complex, with the rising tide rose visions of greed before a blunted conscience and a meaner official, till the nation began to look on with alarm.” Public office became a source of gain rather than service, no different than serving as an office clerk or running a shop counter.
Thereafter, the template for an American politician became “the modern democratic alderman” or Boss Tweed rather than, for example, John Quincy Adams. With the rise of profit from political spoils came a brutally competitive party system. From one year to the next, parties seized power from each other, laws changed, and new bosses emerged.
Everywhere the winning politician; the abrogation of the old, the imposition of the new law—are looked at by half the nation as hostile and dangerous… A spirit is engendered which is bad for all—the conqueror as well as the conquered—for they both suffer when the true interests of the nation are unheeded, or the council-chamber of a city erects itself into a little satrapy, above the praise or blame of even those who placed it there. It fosters that spirit of chronic revolution which it would seem we cannot escape; for every abuse of power is a prediction of its coming overthrow.
American elections, Appleton argued, destabilized the Republic. The rotation of laws following the rotation of spoilsmen also gave the mistaken impression that morality was founded upon ballots, “King Majority,” and “the iron tyranny of numbers,” rather than natural law. With legislatures at every level sinking into corruption and bickering, America needed less federalism and stronger executive power: “We long to see a hand which shall dare to launch the thunder against wickedness in high places.” This was not his father’s Whiggery, but Hamiltonian presidential authority.
Democracy and its handmaiden “public opinion” also refused to tolerate differences. Since the democratic creed of one man, one vote was the political equivalent of equality’s “one man is as good as another,” citizens feared the “accusing eye” of their compatriots charging them with elitist pretension. It was the Victorian version of the Salem Witch Trials, except rather than spectral evidence, the accused stood convicted as thinking differently from the democratic masses. Better to think and act alike than face the accusation of elitism.
Like sheep huddling together, when a vague trouble is in the air, their faces meaninglessly the same way, people find in gregariousness, safety. The solitude of a free, independent life is too oppressive for them. Oddity, eccentricity, are the least harmful names which the other sheep of the fold give to any isolation or withdrawal from the common movement. There is a secret impatience of any freedom they do not understand, any independence which reproaches their own compliant imitativeness. And just as a chain is no stronger than its weakest part, so, in this linked fellowship of public opinion, the value is apt to be determined by the poorest, least noble link in the human chain.
The enforced democratic sameness of American life was not only in the big ideas—unequivocally and publicly favoring democracy and equality, like a neo-Puritan public confession of faith, for example—but also a “uniformity in little things, not enforced by law.” European visitors noticed when they came to the United States “a sameness of doing, acting, moving, and keeping still, which is converting the nation of men and women into something like a paper of pins.” Appleton had seen himself under the gaze of accusing eyes in his youthful choice of the Tory Bohemian life. “Hence the cold questioning eye one meets in the street, which says, ‘Aren’t you mad yet? How dare you be so odd! Fall into line.’ And so we fall into line, and regiment our thoughts into battalions and march with the rest,” he lamented.
Appleton’s observations on American democratic equality extended into cultural habits. Americans brimmed with nervous energy, hurried everywhere, and harbored a deep dislike of permanence. It reflected the nation’s “touch and go” soul, he believed. In England, everything was built to last, its tower keeps and cathedrals testifying to its love of the permanent things. “Every wall seems built with consideration for posterity,” Appleton related from his long years of English residence. “The piers, the castles, the public buildings, front time with the craggy resoluteness of the quarry from whence they came.” American structures, however, had “a kaleidoscopic look—evanescent, as if built for the hour. They sojourn but for a day, and seem to whisper, ‘Wait, and see our solider successor.’” The difference between nations lay in an England fixed by geography and an America growing across its still open frontier, full of possibilities and opportunities. That potential gave to America its vitality, its inventiveness and embrace of innovation. But like a ship with all sail and no anchor, it also brought a hatred of the past and a fatal recklessness. Developers tore down old buildings in a zeal of renewal. “We do not build out, in ever-continued wings and additions, the house of our fathers, but we take it down and build another.” Everything America produced was lighter and cheaper compared to the English. Shortcuts and money-saving led to dangers—steamboat boilers exploded and trains frequently crashed. “An American to save his hours will risk his days. This determination to save power and to narrow the margin meets with the consequences which critical moments must bring to what has so slight a foundation.” Appleton alluded to the Great Boston Fire of 1872 as a reflection of this, as a city with cheap wooden structures instead of stone went up in flames.
The great impermanence of American life reflected a shallow understanding of liberty. Consider the attraction of “free trade,” he offered. Most of its allure lay with its suggestion of liberation, “that charm which attaches to every epithet compounded of the glorious word ‘free.’” Americans disliked restraint and as people hurried about their lives, loyalty to places and persons slackened. Social bonds frayed as individuals constantly attempted to escape obligations and invent themselves anew.
On returning many years ago from Europe, I met an acquaintance, and on asking him how he got on in his profession he replied “that he had changed it.” I asked him how was all at home; he said “he did not know, for he now lived in New York;” and as I took leave of him by name, he called after me to say, “that for family reasons he had changed his name too.” He was all “touch and go.” He may now be a missionary to [India], with his tenth name and his fifth wife, having got so good a start at first.
Appleton labeled the attitude as “the want of fixedness which the human spirit craves.” Advances in transportation and communication technology aided this, substituting the “whirl” of railroads and telegraphs for our humanity. The machine had entered the garden and the “mechanism we admire eats away a part of us by substituting itself for us, and if it abbreviates time and space, we share in the hurry.”
Lest this description lead anyone to believe Appleton only hounded the United States for its failures, he also saw promise. He was by nature an inveterate optimist. One eulogist recalled that “To Mr. Appleton life, as a rule, was rose-colored. He saw the bright side, held fast to that which was good, and found much joy and mirth and sweetness in society.” He rejoiced in the lack of American class consciousness. If democracy had its pitfalls, it also showed its potentialities. The corruption of Boss Tweeds was not inevitable, but a risk inherent in the system. “Let us not be discouraged; for there is a radical justice in the democratic idea; it scares us because it trusts such mighty forces to untrained hands. It scares because it is like sailing into the unknown, this experiment of a people ruling itself. It is the mission of America to show that it can be done.” Although the American dynamo encouraged a sense of rootlessness, he marveled at its ability to innovate and improve people’s lives.
[I]f there be a democratic influence of the future which shall supplement the faith of the statesman, it will be found in this genius of ours, which will not rest till it has made every thing accessible to everybody… This is democracy at its best, and shows how it lives and moves in accordance with the spirit of the age, and the hourly triumphs of science and invention.
After all, the well-dressed republican in his waistcoat could face the French revolutionary and demonstrate the American democracy of attainment.
Tom Appleton greatly admired the Tory Samuel Johnson—“a noble fellow, saturated with knowledge; a magazine of satire, a power-house of wit”—and followed his example. He was also a Bohemian, walking the path of Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin (both of whom he also esteemed) in rejecting the “soft securities and sham conventionalities” of the Victorian age. He critiqued the comfortable platitudes of equality, democracy, and liberty and tweaked proper Boston’s expectations by becoming its witty aesthete. Holmes lamented his passing: “The city seems grayer and older since he has left it. The cold spring winds come in from the bay harsher and more unfriendly… But how much of all that he was must die with the memory of those now living!” Yet, Holmes erred. Like Richard Henry Dana, Sr., Barrett Wendell, Ralph Adams Cram, and others, Appleton stands among many New England lights whose names receded because they cut against the grain of the age. If it is true that historiography lends legitimacy to ideas, then men like Appleton ought to be recovered.
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The featured image is a frontispiece of Thomas Gold Appleton to Life and Letters of Thomas Gold Appleton (1885), edited by Susan Hale, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.