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The American Rustics

American Lumberjacks 1800s 1899

As I believe I have mentioned before, I am working on a book on various men of history titled something along the lines of “# Men of History: And the Character Every Man Should Cultivate.” The # will be the actual number of men in the book (originally it was going to be 21 but that has become to audacious a goal and will likely be 7 or 12). I have spent a good deal of time learning and writing about Gen. William Eaton, and have paid particular attention to his dealings with the Barbary States (the North African regions of the Muslim Ottoman Empire), at the turn of 19th century and the birth of an independent United States. Eaton spent a number of years as a Consul to the region and accordingly learned a great deal and recorded a great deal of his interactions with the narcissistic and materialistic governors (beys, bashaw, or pasha) of the areas.

His story — or perhaps legendary adventures the more I learn of it and place myself in that time period — in that area will be covered in the book, but there was one exchange with a bey (governor) that stood out to me, and since I do not have a fitting place for it in a book where only a chapter is devoted to each man of history I thought I would share it here and derive what I can.

A Parcel of Countrymen, Shepherds, and Rustics

Setting the scene

There were 3 regions the U.S. had been paying for “safe passage” along the North African coast line, just under Italy and France, in order to continue trade in Europe: Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. Each region has a ruler and each year the dues for keeping peace continue to increase, some totaling well over a million dollars. However, just as we see in current affairs, the “peace” agreements never really last and our merchant ships are captured by Muslim pirates and the crew taken as slaves while the beys demand a ransom.

To make matter worse, each regional bey wants to out-do the other. So, upon hearing that one region has negotiated a more costly deal with the U.S., the others will up-the-ante as well, which is the case in the exchange below. A bey has been demanding gold and jewelry as a means of a gift from the U.S. (they say gift rather than bribe), which is how most nations did business…but not America.

The Exchange

Gen. William Eaton recounts his exchange in a letter or journal entry. The full exchange and one of the rare books on Eaton’s life can be found here.

“…the United States will not adopt the example of the Spaniards; and for very good reason; they have not the ability. Why should we promise regalia for which our country did not produce? It were better to deal thus plainly with him, than to flatter him to expect jewels which might never be in our power to procure. It was true, as I told him yesterday, that we had neither gold nor diamonds in America, nor any body who knows how to work them.

‘What are you’, said he [the bey], ‘a parcel of countrymen, shepherds, and rustics?’

‘Very much so.’

‘But you build ships?’

‘Yes.’

‘Of what timber?’

‘The best.’

‘And handsome?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, suppose you agree to make the Bey a present of a small, handsome cruiser?'”

I really love this whole exchange. For me, it conjures up something of the American Spirit to a degree that I wanted to salute and shout a “ Hell Yeah!” when I read it!

The World on Its Ear

For centuries, at least since written history, the leaders of the world believed wealth was measured in the possession of precious metals and jewels, the majority of which was under the rule of a king, until of course the kingdom was conquered and the lot transferred. America also needed gold, and we would later find we had quite a bit, but as we had no king, we valued our natural resources far more. The everyday “sheep herder”, as we were called, didn’t spend his life trying to amass a fortune, rather, he spent it trying to build a life for him and his family. In other nations this kind of man would be considered a peasant or some underclass incapable of ever getting ahead, but in the U.S. this kind of man was his own king of sorts. He may, if he had the gumption and good fortune, amass a fortune and see his children and their children start off on a better footing than he did.

Reading the above, we get a glimpse at just how foreign a concept this was to many nations. What was meant as a criticism was taken as the highest compliment. It is clear in reading other historical works like this that people from other cultures can’t quite get their mind around it. We find them saying things such as: “ How is it that a nation a rustics can wield so much power?” and “ How is it possible that they have not managed to destroy themselves without the beneficent leadership of the upper-class?

Everything we were doing was supposed to fail, yet, it didn’t.

Are We Still Rustics?

The featured image on this article is from around 1899. Considering Eaton died in 1811, the changes people underwent in outward appearance are pretty amazing. Looking at a picture of Americans from the mid to late 1700s (Washington’s day) feels like a thousand years ago, but the lumberjacks in the image seem rather close to our time. In reality, it has only been 215 years since Eaton’s day, a very short amount of time, and many of our grand or great-grandparents were born in the 1800’s. We (Americans) aren’t too far removed from the start of something great, something unique, something world-changing. Yet, I wonder how much of our rusticity we have forgotten? Have we lost something of the pride in being a simple folk? Do we want to appear to the world as something other than rustics and shepherds? If so, how can we, as men, get it back?

Final Thoughts

I do see a turning back towards our rustic heritage, brought about in large part, and ironically, by the digital age. There is such an ease of sharing our lives, products, and working from home, that a number of people are reviving the dwindling art of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind, American quality, wares ( Sons of Sawdust come to mind, check them out). Much of this comes from finding reclaimed lumber, the heartier stock from our once old forests, and putting it to good use and bringing it back into our homes.

I think this is a good start and is, hopefully, more than just a trend.

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