America: Experiment or Destiny?

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Nearly two centuries after Crèvecoeur propounded his notorious question—“What then is the American, this new man?”—Vine Deloria, Jr., an American Indian writing in the Bicentennial year on the subject “The North Americans” for Crisis , a magazine directed to American blacks, concluded: “No one really knows at the present time what America really is.” Surely few observers were more entitled to wonder at the continuing mystery than those who could accurately claim the designation Original American. Surely no audience had more right to share the bafflement than one made up of descendants of slaves.

But we are all baffled by the meaning of the American experience. All any of us can do is descry a figure in the carpet—realizing as we do that contemporary preoccupations define our own definitions. My effort here will be to suggest two themes that seem to me to have subsisted in subtle counterpoint since the time when English-speaking white men first began the invasion of America. Both have dwelt within the American mind and struggled for its possession through the course of our history. Their competition will doubtless continue for the rest of the life of the nation. This essay aims to present these rival themes and to propose some points about the relationship between the divergent outlooks and the health of the republic.

I will call one theme the tradition and the other the countertradition, thereby betraying at once my own bias. The tradition, as I prefer to style it, sprang initially from historic Christianity as mediated by Augustine and Calvin. The Calvinist ethos was suffused with convictions of the depravity of man, of the awful precariousness of human existence, of the vanity of mortals under the judgment of a pitiless and wrathful deity. Harriet Beecher Stowe recalled the atmosphere in Oldlown Folks: “The underlying foundation of life … in New England, was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune.”

So terrible a sense of the nakedness of the human condition turned all of life into an unending and implacable process of testing. “We must look upon our selves,” said William Stoughton, the chief justice of the court that condemned the Salem witches, “as under a solemn divine Probation; it hath been and it is a Probation-time, even to this whole People.…” So had it been at all times for all people. Most had failed the test. Were the American colonists immune to the universal law?

In the Calvinist view, all secular communities were finite and problematic; all flourished and all decayed; all had a beginning and an end. For Christians this idea had its locus classicus in the attempt to solve the problem of the decline and fall of Rome—a problem that transfixed the serious historical minds of the West from Augustine to Gibbon. By the time the revolutionaries came to Philadelphia in 1776, the flames of Calvinism were already burning low. Hell was dwindling into an epithet. Still, for the fathers of the republic as for the fathers of the church, the history of Rome remained the example from which they thought to learn the most about human possibilities.

From different premises, Calvinists and classicists reached the same conclusion about the fragility of human striving. Antiquity haunted the Federal imagination. The Founding Fathers had embarked on a singular adventure—the adventure of a republic . “The Roman republic,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist, “attained to the pinnacle of human greatness.” In this conviction the first generation of the American republic designed its buildings, wrote its epics, named the upper chamber of its legislature, signed its greatest political treatise “Publius,” sculpted its heroes in togas, organized the Society of the Cincinnati, and instructed the young. There was plausibility in the parallel. There was also warning. For the grandeur that was Rome had come to an inglorious end. Could the United States of America hope to do better?

The Founding Fathers passionately ransacked the classical historians for ways to escape the classical fate. But the classical indoctrination reinforced the Calvinist judgment that this was probation-time for America. For the history of antiquity did not teach the inevitability of progress. It proved rather the perishability of republics, the subversion of virtue by power and luxury, the transience of glory, the mutability of human affairs. The apprehension of the mortality of states was a vital element in the sensibility of Philadelphia in 1787. Not only was man vulnerable through his propensity to sin, but republics were vulnerable through their propensity to corruption. The dread of corruption, as Professor Bernard Bailyn has demonstrated, was readily imported from England to the colonies. History showed that, in the unceasing contest between corruption and virtue, corruption had always—at least up to 1776—triumphed.