chapter
12 Pages

Introduction

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1830, he found a people intent on material acquisition and an atmosphere permeated by an anxious spirit of gain.

The young Frenchman observed that commerce stirred the Americans' passions more than anything else; they looked at the world with the trader's eye and brought a market mentality into their social and political relations. Tocqueville thought this a peculiarly American disposition and attributed it to the egalitarian social order, which, he believed, fueled adesire for economic betterment and insured everlasting discontent with one's present status. Americans were always calculating how to improve their lot. Unceasingly they weighed risks, computed advantages, and gauged the utility of any particular course of action. "Their minds," Tocqueville said, were "accustomed to definite calculations." I

In lacksonian America the habit of calculation was endorsed by educators, moralists, politicians, and patriotic boosters. William Alcott, whose book The Young Man's Guide was a leading prototype of advice literature for ambitious young men, stressed that calculation was indispensable for the moral and profitable life. "Live within your income," he warned; "to this end you must calculate." Alcott demonstrated the proper technique by figuring the cost of the indolent habit of staying ul' until eleven o'clock at night and rising two hours past daybreak: the bill for candles would run to $182.50 in fifty years. Arithmetic was a crucial study for Alcott's ideal young man. Everyone learned the fundamentals in school, he said, but it was essential to practice it endlessly: "Seize on every circumstance ... where reckoning

is required." News of a shipwreck, for example, should spur the enterprising lad to compute the numbers saved and lost, thus sharpening his numerical skills.2