America: Experiment or Destiny?

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This is why Hamilton, in the third sentence of the first Federalist , formulated the issue as he did. The American people, he wrote, had the opportunity “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” So Washington defined it in his first Inaugural Address: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally , staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.” The Founding Fathers saw the American republic not as a consecration but as the test against history of a hypothesis.

Washington’s early successors, with mingled anxiety and hope, reported on the experiment’s fortunes. In his last message to Congress, James Madison permitted himself “the proud reflection that the American people have reached in safety and success their fortieth year as an independent nation.” “Our institutions,” said James Monroe in his last message, “form an important epoch in the history of the civilized world. On their preservation and in their utmost purity everything will depend.” Washington, said Andrew Jackson in his own Farewell Address, regarded the Constitution “as an experiment” and “was prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to secure to it a full and a fair trial. The trial has been made. It has succeeded beyond the proudest hopes of those who framed it.” “The present year,” Martin Van Buren said in 1838, “closes the first half century of our Federal institutions.... It was reserved for the American Union to test the advantages of a government entirely dependent on the continual exercise of the popular will.” “After an existence of near three-fourths of a century as a free and independent Republic,” said Polk in the next decade, “the problem no longer remains to be solved whether man is capable of self-government.” Sixty years after the Constitution, Zachary Taylor pronounced the United States of America “the most stable and permanent Government on earth.”

How is one to account for this rising optimism? It was partly a tribute, reasonable enough, to survival. It was partly the spread-eagleism and vainglory congenial to a youthful nationalism. It was no doubt also in part admonitory exhortation, for the Presidents of the middle period must have known in their bones that the American experiment was confronting its fiercest internal trial. No one understood more profoundly the chanciness of the adventure than the young man who spoke in 1838 on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions” before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Over most of the first half century, Abraham Lincoln said, America had been felt “to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.” But success contained its own perils; “with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase.” As the memory of the Revolution receded, the pillars of the temple of liberty were crumbling away. “That temple must fall, unless we … supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” The conviction of the incertitude of life informed his Presidency—and explained its greatness. His first message to Congress asked whether all republics had an “inherent and fatal weakness.” At the Gettysburg cemetery he described the great civil war as “testing” whether any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal “can long endure.”

This was, then, a dominant theme of the early republic—the idea of America as an experiment, undertaken in defiance of history, fraught with risk, problematic in outcome. But a countertradition was also emerging—and, as the mounting presidential optimism suggests, with accumulating momentum. The countertradition, too, had its roots in the Calvinist ethos.

Historic Christianity embraced two divergent thoughts: that all people were immediate unto God; and that some were more immediate than others. At first, Calvin had written in the Institutes, God “chose the Jews as his very own flock.” Then, with what Edwards called “the abolishing of the Jewish dispensation,” the wall was “broken down to make way for the more extensive success of the gospel.” The chosen people thereafter were the elect as against the reprobate. The age that sent the Calvinists to New England also saw a revival of the primitive millennialism of the first century. The New Englanders felt they had been called from hearth and home to endure unimaginable rigor and ordeal in a dangerous land; so they supposed someone of importance had called them, and for important reasons. “God hath covenanted with his people,” said Increase Mather, “that sanctified afflictions shall be their portion.... Without doubt, the Lord Jesus hath a peculiar respect unto this place, and for this people .”