Note: Originally published on July 1st, 2017, at the now-defunct website “The American Moderate.” Reposted here, unedited and in full. For the record, my own understanding has changed somewhat since I wrote this. I will probably write a thematically and structurally similar piece, updated for changes in understanding and nuances in meaning, in due time.
As we celebrate this Fourth of July, it would be fruitful to meditate on the question – what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate “America?” Is it a set of ideals and principles rooted in the Enlightenment? Is it a blood-and-soil nation on the American continent, with unique institutions and culture? Is it an idea that happens to have a nation, a nation that happens to have an idea, or something else entirely?
There are merits in both the ideological and blood-and-soil understandings of American-ness, but both could use deeper detail. One of the advantages of the blood-and-soil approach over the ideological approach is this: when viewing America as an organic historical nation-state, one can cite concrete historical experiences and their effects on the American character and personality, without needing to celebrate or condemn them. Those using the ideological approach inevitably must cast judgments on whether these experiences “measured up” to America’s “Founding ideals,” including or excluding them from the American pantheon depending on their moral value. The user of the blood-and-soil approach is bound to no such scruples, and can simply describe what America has been and is.
The experiences the blood-and-soil analyst looks at will of course be influenced by relative success- slavery and plantation culture is no longer a significant part of the American identity because it was utterly destroyed a century and a half ago, whereas industrial capitalism remains a driving force shaping the American experience. One might object that looking only at “the winners” is not a particularly objective way to view history.
True though that may be, a meditation purporting to study the essence of American character, American culture, American identity, and American-ness should be bounded by those experiences that exerted the most influence in defining those things. What follows, then, is a narrative litany of what this writer believes to have been the most influential historical experiences shaping Americanism in every epoch of our existence as a nation, from colonial days to the present.
Each historical experience is an extended historic moment- some a mere few years, others a few decades, some a century or more. They are broadly thematic, yet united around core trends and events. Each extends beyond itself to influence American political economy, social trends, popular and elite culture, geopolitics, and political institutions, in its own time and beyond. Through these experiences a nation of people, a cultural legacy, and a great institutional state have been built over the course of over four centuries. It is important to note that some of these experiences are basically incompatible with others, at first look. They are all entirely American, but none is the entirety of America. Together, in their creative tension, they contribute to the great American story and conversation, full as it is with contradictions and irregularities.
Finally, there’s the political question, so crucial in today’s age of increasing censorship and cherry-picking misinterpretation of history. Some of these experiences, for one reason or another, are distasteful to modern observers of whatever political persuasion. There are those out there who would willfully abandon their legacy, out of hopes to build “a better future.” But we cannot forget our own past- if any of these American experiences were to be lost or forgotten in the national memory, our civilization would be worse off for it. On the other hand, if we limit our historical development to these ten experiences, and fail to develop more beyond them, our civilization will fail to thrive beyond its fourth century of existence. The task of American patriots is to cultivate understanding of and reverence for our past, and with that knowledge of the qualities of our national spirit, to build a yet more glorious future.
With that, then, let’s look at these ten experiences that have defined America up to 2017.
First off, the origins. Americans came from somewhere- the first settlers were different groups of colonists from various parts of England. David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial study of American origins, Albion’s Seed, documents this brilliantly. At a foundational level, America is and always has been an Anglo nation-state with a powerful yet flexible core cultural heritage.
The English language, English traditions of common law, and the Protestant influence on American individualism, philosophy, and civic culture and community are all undeniably components of the American identity at a very basic level. The settler experience of the 17th and 18thcenturies- the development of a new world from the seeds of the old- is crucial to the American story. Even as masses of immigrants came to the country in the 19th and 20th centuries- first from Continental Europe, and eventually from Latin America, East Asia, and every other corner of the world- America has retained its distinct Englishness through its relative openness and cultural fluidity, its ability to assimilate large groups of foreigners within the space of a few generations.
We were Americans long before we fought for independence in the Revolutionary War, as the intermingling of English culture with the American wilderness made us something other than Englishmen. But we were not yet a nation.
It was the War of Independence, the American Revolution, that granted our nation its nationhood. Whereas the colonial experience had been a conservative affair of the transference of culture from one side of the Atlantic to the other, the American Revolution sparked the beginnings of American radicalism and universalism, the exuberance and triumphalism of a newly-awakened people believing they had Providence on their side. The War of 1812- the so-called “Second American Revolution-“ merely solidified this triumphalism several decades later, prompting such excesses as “the Era of Good Feelings” and the beginnings of the strategically premature Monroe Doctrine. But the image of a rugged band of volunteer citizen-soldiers fighting for an ideal universal to mankind has remained integral to the American self-image ever since.
This is not to say that the Revolution was entirely radical- as has been well-documented by Daniel Hannan in “Inventing Freedom,” it was often justified in the name of “preserving the rights of Englishmen.” Additionally, its most important legacy was not spiritual at all, but geopolitical- the suffering of General Washington’s men in the snows of Valley Forge and their glory in the fields of Yorktown won for the American people the reins of their own destiny, and independence to take their place among the nations of the Earth.
The Revolution won but did not secure America’s liberty- that important work was done by the Framers of the Constitution, who through toil and conflict, reflection and compromise, designed the framework and foundations of a constitutional republic. The Constitution’s checks and balances and divisions of authority, the federal system of state and national sovereignty, a national government that was energetic and powerful, yet limited and constrained, and capable of addressing the great issues of the day and many days beyond, all contributed to the successful organization of the thirteen states and their western territories into a great new federal union. This federal union alone could preserve the liberty of the American people.
James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention and Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s 85 Federalist Papers capture the mechanical spirit of the constitutional epoch in American history. The subsequent crises of the Federalist Era, and the successive affirmations of Federalist solutions in the Jeffersonian Era, would test but ultimately legitimate the mechanics of the Constitutional system. America from about 1785 to the War of 1812 was in flux over its institutions; but due to the work done in that period, by the end of it, the institutional structure at its foundations would not be questioned. Other questions- on culture, on geopolitics, on sovereignty- would take the stage. But the Framers had, at the very least, created the American state and system of government, and guaranteed that the constitutional republican tradition rather than any other would be the safeguard of American liberty for generations to come.
The basically aristocratic culture of the early Republic would not outlive the Framers. For all their brilliance in designing the constitutional system, the Framers would not have the final say on the animating spirit of the growing nation- that decision would be provided by the statesmen of the antebellum, both Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. The Jacksonian Revolution of the late 1820s and 1830s would forever change the culture of American politics, decisively shifting American legitimacy from a mere faith in institutions to something looking more like a democratic “common will.” It would infuse American politics with a common man’s ethos of simplicity, tradition, people’s wisdom, and folk culture, and would turn “democracy” from the dirty word of the Federalists into the litmus test for American statesmen for generations to come.
By some measures, America was first truly “American” upon the onset of this democratic revolution. Other trends to be discussed subsequently- the spirit of capitalism, for one, and the Westward movement, for another- had also taken prominence, and America in 1835 was culturally and politically recognizable to anyone of the later 19th and 20th Centuries. Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 masterwork, Democracy in America, remains relevant to this day, testifying to the remarkable staying power of democratic culture on the American continent.
But crisis loomed ahead, as everyone from Henry Clay to Andrew Jackson seemed to understand. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860, the Crisis of the Union which had been underway since at least the early 1850s took on a new force, and the Civil War- America’s Iliad- broke out and consumed the young nation. The Union cause in the Civil War was in some ways a radical affair- the erasure of Southern plantation culture, the expansion of freedom and franchise to all Americans, the coming hegemony of free-labor industrial capitalism- but in the eyes of the Republicans and the Union Army’s general staff, it was a conservative project. The preservation of the Union, and of American power over the Continent, was the crucial question.
Aside from being a great military epic Americans could be proud of, the Civil War had many other effects on American culture and identity. For one thing, the moral cause of liberty and equality would forever be enshrined in the American civic ethos at the level of practical democracy, rather than staying ensconced in public discourse and philosophy. But more importantly, the Civil War’s conclusion ensured that the Union, which by now stretched across the American continent from sea to shining sea, would be preserved in whole and not in parts. It would remain the great power it was, positioned towards even higher greatness in the decades and centuries to come.
Long before Fort Sumter, though, the American people were being shaped by an extension of the early settler experience- the Conquest of the West and the expansion across the American continent. Americans pushed further and further West, in great numbers starting in the 1830s, and would continue to do so until they’d populated the entirety of American territory between the Mississippi and the Pacific in the late 19thcentury. As Frederick Jackson Turner argued in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the land and its conditions left its mark on the culture and society of those who crossed it and settled it. The poet Sam Walter Foss, speaking as the American continent, asked for “Men to Match My Mountains,” and the American people obliged.
Generation after generation of frontiersmen, pioneers, Indian fighters, surveyors, engineers, and more pushed West, bringing the mantle of American civilization with them and transforming American civilization in the process. Soon, the rugged individualist ethos of the cowboy was more than mere myth- it was reality for an American people accustomed to self-reliance, simplicity, and honor. And there was a solid geopolitical prize that came along with this cultural one- dominion over the majority of the American continent, with access to both of the world’s greatest oceans and innumerable stocks of every sort of natural resource. This bounty would soon give birth to another facet of the American character.
Matching the individualist ethos cultivated by the experience of the Westward movement was an entrepreneurial ethos- a great knack for management and organization and innovation, a brilliance and genius rooted in benevolent acquisitiveness, all of which inspired and drove American inventors, investors, and captains of industry.
Over the course of several great industrial revolutions, starting in the early 1800s and still ongoing, Americans built titanic industries, infrastructure, and cities, harnessed the power of every natural resource conceivable, and invented contraptions and machines that sent men to the moon and split the atom. Fueled by ample investment and natural resources and a healthy business climate, the American Dream was made possible not only for the corporate titans but for the small businessmen as well. This great industrial capitalist might nurtured a spirit of problem-solving and enterprise that Americans are now famous for around the world. And in this sense, the business of America has always been business.
The excesses and social dislocations of industrial capitalism precipitated a great social crisis, and by the turn of the 20th century, Americans clamored for major reforms in their governing institutions. Some of these efforts were quite radical- the great labor strikes, populist politicians, and socialist movements of the early 20th century have gone down into legend, and few remember today that between the 1880s and 1910s, a few presidents of the United States were shot by anarchist terrorists. Conservative statesmen and radical reformers joined hands in compromise to reform institutions to quell the social crisis.
The early progressives – particularly during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson- pioneered progressive social legislation, and their intellectual descendants continued that work over several decades, in the forms of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Americans built up a federally-sponsored safety net and welfare state, a system of collaborative enterprise and regulation, and a government promising a better quality of life for all citizens. These institutions represent a preservation and extension of the American Dream, or the Promise of American Life, for the citizens of the United States. They topped off the modernization of the United States. And nowadays, the notion that the government ought to serve its people in all ways possible, and marshal resources for national ends, is integral to American political culture.
These modernizing reforms bound the American people together at home just in time for the great Eurasian crises of 1914-1991. The crisis of imperialism in the First World War, and the rise of fascism and communism in the 1930s, and our subsequent involvement in the Second World War and competition with the Soviets in the Cold War, stretched our resources and our need to defend the homeland to degrees never before known. The Mahan-Root-Roosevelt school of American internationalism, mixed with the liberalism of the Wilsonians, provided a template for postwar American internationalists to update the inherited British world order, and turn it into something new.
The prospect of a peaceful world order, governed by just relations between liberal states and open societies, was a dream the architects of post-1945 American foreign policy sought to preserve and expand. It involved the stewardship of international institutions, the maintenance of a navy that could command the seas and keep open the sea lanes of trade, and the preservation of a peaceful balance of power between the most powerful nations on the planet. The consummation of America’s role as a “city upon a hill” and a “light unto the nations” took its fullest form when America assumed the mantle of world leadership – and this has been integral to its self-image ever since.
Amidst the American experiences with welfare-state modernization and liberal internationalism, an older tradition – the neo-Puritan reform tradition of Civil Rights- came into its own and expanded the dreams of liberty and equality for all Americans. All the way back to at least the 1830s, the United States had seen utopian reform movements rise up periodically, especially around the “Great Reawakening” religious revivals. Such sentiments had fueled everything from women’s suffrage to abolition to progressive social reforms in the early 20th Century.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement- building off of these earlier antecedents- successfully enshrined equality before the law, for people of all races and origins, into the American national identity. It paved the way for a fuller integration of people from around the world into the American experience. Its legacy is still felt acutely today, when questions on immigration, civil rights, and American identity frequently bubble up to the foreground of public discourse. More than any of the other American experiences listed here, this one is still ongoing.
We can imagine future “American experiences” that may one hundred years from now prove to be just as vital to the American identity as these ten listed have been. Perhaps the reform of the New Deal state towards a more localized, sustainable, and fundamentally workable system – something like the stymied “New Federalism” of the Nixon Administration, updated by the power of the Information Revolution – could transform American governance in the 21st century to the same degree that the Progressive and New Deal reforms did for the 20th century. Another great quest with historic antecedents is the conquest of the Solar System – the rejuvenation of the American space program and the exploration and colonization of other worlds beyond the moon. Another great period of exploration can bring out the greatest facets of the existing American character and transform them into something new.
One begins to notice a pattern, looking across American history – each of these experiences was in some ways conservative and in other ways radical, but distinctively one more than the other. The conservative transference of Anglo culture from the British Isles to the American continent; the radical universalism of the American Revolution; the conservative caution of the framing of the Constitution; the radical experiments with Jacksonian democracy; the conservative preservation of the Union in the Civil War; the radical egalitarianism and democracy of the Westward conquest; the conservatism of culture and class wrought by the Industrial Revolution; the radicalism of the Industrial Age’s excesses, tempered into reforms in the Progressive Era and New Deal movements; the conservatism that went into building the Liberal International Order after the ravages of two world wars; and the fundamental radicalism and reformism of the Civil Rights Movement and its antecedents. Will all this be followed by a conservative reformation of American governance down to the localities? Will that be followed by the radical disruptive technological advancement of space colonization?
A primarily radical historical experience was followed by a primarily conservative one, and so on and so forth. This should surprise no one, for America has always been a remarkably extreme nation with no less remarkable staying power. American schizophrenia has been a quality of our national existence for our entire existence as a people, and will surely remain with us until we’ve been extinguished from the Earth.
But until then, for now, the chroniclers and storytellers and salesmen of the American legacy have a twofold task.
First, to serve as bards to the public, singing the glory of the past and reminding Americans who they are.
Second, to serve as prophets of the future, sketching the glorious shape of things to come and heralding the future greatness of the American nation.
With luck, someone will soon turn to this great task- the composition of a great cultural, political, and intellectual history of the American experiment, in such a way as to remind Americans what they have been, what they are, and what they will be. These divided times require nothing less.