America: Experiment or Destiny?

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The Founding Fathers had an intense conviction of the improbability of their undertaking. Such assets as they possessed came in their view from geographical and demographic advantage, not from divine intercession. Benjamin Franklin ascribed the inevitability of American independence to such mundane factors as population increase and vacant lands, not to providential design. But even these assets could not be counted on to prevail against history and human nature.

Hamilton said in the New York ratifying convention, “The tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature.” If Hamilton be discounted as a temperamental pessimist or a disaffected adventurer, his great adversaries were not always more sanguine about the republic’s future. “Commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government,” Adams wrote Benjamin Rush in 1808. “… We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against the constitution and course of nature.” “I tremble for my country,” Jefferson had said in the 1780’s, “when I reflect that God is just.” Though he was trembling at this point—rightly and presciently—over the problem of slavery, he also trembled chronically in the nineties over the unlikely prospect of “monarchy.” In 1798 he saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as tending to drive the states “into revolution and blood, and [to] furnish new calumnies against republican government, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed, that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron.”

This pervasive self-doubt, this urgent sense of the precariousness of the national existence, was no doubt nourished by European assessments of the American prospect. For eminent and influential Europeans regarded the New World, not as an idyl of Lockean felicity—“in the beginning, all the world was America”—but as a disgusting scene of degeneracy and impotence.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the famous Buffon lent the weight of scientific authority to the proposition that life in the Western Hemisphere was consigned to biological inferiority. American animals were smaller and weaker; European animals shrank when transported across the Atlantic, except, Buffon specified, for the fortunate pig. As for the natives of the fallen continent, they too were small and weak, passive and backward.

No one made this case more irritatingly and perseveringly than Abbé Raynal in France. His much-reprinted work, Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and of the Commerce of Europeans in the Two Indies , first published in 1770, explained how European innocence was under siege by American depravity. America, Raynal wrote, had “poured all the sources of corruption on Europe.” The search for American riches brutalized the European intruder. The climate and soil of America caused the European species, human as well as animal, to deteriorate. “The men have less strength and less courage … and are but little susceptible of the lively and powerful sentiment of love—a comment that perhaps revealed Raynal in the end more as a Frenchman than as an abbé.

The Founding Fathers were highly sensitive to the proposition that America was a mistake. Franklin, who thought Raynal an “ill-informed and evil-minded Writer,” once endured a monologue by the diminutive abbé on the inferiority of the Americans at his own dinner table in Paris. “Let us try this question by the fact before us,” said Franklin, calling on his guests to stand up and measure themselves back to back. “There was not one American present,” wrote Jefferson, who was also there, “who could not have tost out of the Windows any one or two of the rest of the Company.”

Though the Founders were both indignant and effective in their rebuttal, the nature of the attack could hardly have increased their confidence in the future of their adventure. The European doubt, along with the Calvinist judgment and the classical pessimism, made them acutely aware of the chanciness of an extraordinary enterprise. From the fate of the Greek city-states and the fall of the Roman Empire, they drew somber conclusions about the prospects of the American republic. They had no illusions about the inviolability of America to history, nor about the perfectibility of man, Americans or others. The Constitution, James Bryce has well said, was “the work of men who believed in original sin, and were resolved to leave open for transgressors no door which they could possibly shut.”

We have all applied the phrase “end of innocence” to one or another stage of American history. This is surely an amiable flourish—or a pernicious delusion. No people who systematically enslaved black men and killed red men could be innocent. No people reared on Calvin and Tacitus, on Jonathan Edwards and the Federalist, could be innocent. No nation founded on invasion, conquest, and slaughter could be innocent. No state established by revolution and thereafter rent by civil war could be innocent. The Constitution was hardly the product of immaculate conception. The Founding Fathers were not a band of saints. They were brave and imperturbable realists who committed themselves, in defiance of the available lessons of history and theology, to a monumental gamble.