America: Experiment or Destiny?

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It was not only that they were, in Winthrop’s words, as a City upon a Hill, with the eyes of all people upon them. It was that they had been despatched to New England, as Edward Johnson said, by a Wonder-working Providence because “this is the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven, and a new Earth.” The “Lord Christ” intended “to make his New England Souldiers the very wonder of this Age.” The fact that God had withheld America so long—until the Reformation purified the church, until the invention of printing spread the Bible among the people—argued that He had been preparing it for some ultimate manifestation of His grace. God, said Winthrop, having “smitten all the other Churches before our eyes,” had reserved America for those whom He meant “ to save out of this generall callamitie ,” as he had once sent the ark to save Noah. The new land was certainly a part, perhaps the climax, of redemptive history; America was divine prophecy fulfilled.

The achievement of independence gave new status to this theory. The Reverend Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards’ grandson, called Americans “this chosen race.” “God’s mercies to New England,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of one minister, wife of another, foreshadowed “the glorious future of the United States … commissioned to bear the light of liberty and religion through all the earth and to bring in the great millennial day, when wars should cease and the whole world, released from the thralldom of evil, should rejoice in the light of the Lord.” “We Americans,” wrote the youthful Herman Melville, “are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.... Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us.”

The belief that Americans were a chosen people did not imply a sure and tranquil journey to salvation. As the Bible made amply clear, chosen people underwent the harshest trials and assumed the most grievous burdens. The rival propositions—America as experiment, America as destiny—thus shared a belief in the process of testing. But one proposition tested works; the other, faith. So Lincoln and Mrs. Stowe agreed from different standpoints in seeing the Civil War as the climactic test. Northern victory, however, strengthened the conviction of providential appointment. “Now that God has smitten slavery unto death,” Mrs. Stowe’s brother Edward wrote in 1865, “he has opened the way for the redemption and sanctification of our whole social system.”

It was a short step from the Social Gospel at home to Americans carrying the Social Gospel to the world. In 1898 the Reverend Alexander Blackburn, who had been wounded at Chickamauga, spoke of “the imperialism of righteousness”; and from Blackburn to the messianic demagoguery of Albert J. Beveridge was only another short step: “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation. … And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world.”

So the impression developed that in the United States of America the Almighty had contrived a nation unique in its virtue and magnanimity, exempt from the motives that governed all other states. “America is the only idealistic nation in the world,” said Woodrow Wilson on his pilgrimage to the West in 1919. “… The heart of this people is pure. The heart of this people is true. … It is the great idealistic force of history.... I, for one, believe more profoundly than in anything else human in the destiny of the United States. I believe that she has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind....”

In another forty years the theory of America as the savior of the world received the furious imprimatur of John Foster Dulles, another Presbyterian elder, and from there roared on to the horrors of Vietnam. So the hallucination brought the republic from the original idea of America as exemplary experiment to the recent idea of America as mankind’s designated judge, jury, and executioner. Nor are we yet absolutely clear that the victor in the Bicentennial election may not believe that nations, like Presidents, may be born again.

Why did the conviction of the corruptibility of men and the vulnerability of states—and the consequent idea of America as experiment—give way to the myth of innocence and the delusion of a sacred mission and a sanctified destiny? The original conviction was rooted in realistic conceptions of history and of human nature—conceptions that waned as the republic prospered. The intense historical-mindedness of the first generation did not endure. “The Past,” Melville said in White Jacket, “is dead, and has no resurrection; but the Future is endowed with such a life that it lives to us even in anticipation.” The new nation was largely populated by people torn from, fleeing from, or in revolt against their own histories. “Probably no other civilised nation,” said the Democratic Review in 1842, “has … so completely thrown off its allegiance to the past as the American.”