The Age of the Commoner
It all started with England's Henry VII
Back in the day, King Henry VII of England had a problem. The Wars of the Roses had killed off most of the male feudal aristocracy. So how to repopulated the ruling class?
Perfectly simple, according to Liah Greenfeld, author of Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Henry promoted a bunch of commoners into the aristocracy. And thus was born the notion of the “nation,” a combination of people and nation. Because previously, “nation” meant the elite.
Redefined as the English nation, the English people was elevated to the dignity of the elite… A nation was a sovereign community of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity, which cut across class and status.
And thus began an age in which, again and again, people of ordinary origin soared into the social stratosphere, not because of who they were, but what they achieved. What about Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII? Word is that he was the son of a butcher. Henry’s other Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell was the son of “a yeoman, fuller and cloth merchant.” His descendant was Oliver Cromwell.
What about Sir Francis Drake, scourge of the Spanish Main? La Wik suggests he was the illegitimate son of a well-connected farmer that got farmed out to a neighbor who ran a ship in the coasting trade.
Then we have the United States of America. The commanding general of the Revolutionary War was George Washington, a landowner by marriage and a slave owner. But his eminense-grise was “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” from the island of St. Croix: Alexander Hamilton. It was the twenty-something Hamilton that kept Washington’s army going as his chief of staff. And then, as the first Secretary of the Treasury under Washington this brilliant commoner set up the National Debt of the new nation and organized its accounts so that today we have a continous recording of US spending and revenue going back to 1792.
And who can forget Benjamin Franklin, escaped apprentice, who built a fortune from printing and publishing in Philadelphia. He created the American culture of thrift, hard work, and community spirit in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. In his seventies he was the agent of the rebels at the court of King Louis in Paris and talked the French into supporting the American Revolution.
Andrew Jackson was the son of Scotch-Irish pioneers; his father died in a logging accident just before Andrew’s birth. He was captured by the British in the Revolutionary War and orphaned at age 14. He studied for the law and was admitted to the bar at age 20. At 35 he was appointed head of the Tennessee militia, and ten years later achieved immortality at the Battle of New Orleans. In 1828 this commoner became President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln was the son of an unsuccessful farmer in Kentucky. With intermittent schooling, Lincoln worked on his father’s farm until age 22 when he moved to New Salem, Illinois. After serving in the Blackhawk War he opened a store with a friend. Then he became a postmaster and finally determined to study to become a lawyer and entered into politics, serving in the Illinois legislature and then the US House of Representatives. In the 1850s Lincoln was active in anti-slavery politics and the new Republican Party. He was elected president in 1860.
Warren Harding was the son of a farmer and schoolteacher who later became a doctor. His mother was a midwife. In 1870 his father bought a local newspaper, and Harding learned the business. He went to college at age 14, and purchased the Marion Star after graduation at age 18 and managed eventually to make the Star into a success. Starting in 1900 he was successively elected state senator, lieutenant governor, and in 1914 US Senator. He was elected president in 1920.
Richard Nixon’s father ran a lemon ranch, and then a grocery store and a gas station. He worked his way through Whittier College at the family store. He studied law at Duke, and was called to the bar in California. After WWII service in the US Navy, Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 and the US Senate in 1950, winning against liberal Democrats. In 1952 he was elected Vice President, and in 1968 President.
Ronald Reagan was the son of a salesman. After high school and college he worked as a radio and sports announcer. In 1937 he took a screen test and became a B-movie actor. In 1947 he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild and testified before Congress about Communists in Hollywood. In the 1950s he became the host of General Electric Theater on CBS and famously toured GE plants making speeches. In 1966 he was elected Governor of California and in 1980 President of the United States.
Then there is Andrew Carnegie, son of a handloom weaver who got steel production going; John D. Rockefeller, store clerk who created Standard Oil to provide safe kerosene for oil lamps. The Wright brothers were sons of a bishop in the evangelical United Brethren and neither went to college. Henry Ford was born on a farm and never attended high school, but did learn how to operate the Westinghouse portable steam engine. Steve Jobs was the adopted son of a coastguard mechanic. He developed a “blue box” with Steve Wozniak to make illegal free long-distance phone calls. He dropped out of college after one semester and then got a job at Atari.
Our modern world has been created and enriched by Nobodies and Anybodies: people without much breeding and without much education and without much polish. I wonder why.