America: Experiment or Destiny?

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We find ourselves now, for all the show-business clatter of the Bicentennial celebrations, an essentially historyless people. Businessmen agree with the elder Henry Ford that history is bunk. The young no longer study history. Intellectuals turn their backs on history in the enthusiasm for the ahistorical behavioral “sciences.” As the American historical consciousness has thinned out, the messianic hope has flowed into the vacuum. Experiment has given ground to destiny as the premise of national life.

So the theory of the elect nation, the redeemer nation, the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue, almost became the official creed. Yet, while the countertradition prospered, the tradition did not quite expire. Some continued to regard it all as the deceitful dream of a golden age, wondering perhaps why the Almighty should have chosen the Americans. “The Almighty,” Lincoln insisted at his second Inaugural, “has His own purposes.” He clearly knew what he was saying, because he wrote soon thereafter to a fellow ironist, Thurlow Weed: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however … is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”

After the war, Walt Whitman, once the supreme poet of democratic faith, suddenly perceived a dark and threatening future. The experiment was in jeopardy. These States, no longer a sure thing, were caught up in a “battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices.” America, Whitman apprehended, might well “prove the most tremendous failure of time.” “’Tis a wild democracy,” Emerson said in his last public address; “the riot of mediocrities and dishonesties and fudges.” A fourth generation of Adamses raised particularly keen doubts whether Providence in settling America had after all opened a grand design to emancipate mankind. Henry Adams began as a connoisseur of political ironies; later he became a sort of reverse millennialist, convinced that science and technology were rushing the planet toward an apocalypse unredeemed by a Day of Judgment. “At the rate of increase of speed and momentum, as calculated on the last fifty years,” he wrote in 1901, “the present society must break its damn neck in a definite, but remote, time, not exceeding fifty years more.” The United States, like everything else, was finished. In the end Adams too abandoned experiment for destiny; but destiny for him was not only manifest but malign. “No one anywhere,” he wrote a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, “… expects a future.”

William James, the philosopher, retained the experimental faith, abhorring the fatalisms and absolutes implied by “the idol of a national destiny … which for some inscrutable reason it has become infamous to disbelieve in or refuse.” We are instructed, James said, “to be missionaries of civilization.... We must sow our ideals, plant our order, impose our God. The individual lives are nothing. Our duty and ourdestiny call, and civilization must go on. Could there be a more damning indictment of that whole bloated idol termed ‘modern civilization’?” All this had come about too fast “for the older American nature not to feel the shock.” One cannot know what James meant by “the older American nature”; but he plainly rejected the supposition that American motives were, by definition, pure; and that the United States enjoyed a divine immunity to temptation and corruption. Like the authors of the Federalist, James was a realist. “Angelic impulses and predatory lusts,” he precisely wrote, “divide our heart exactly as they divide the heart of other countries.”

So the warfare between realism and messianism, between experiment and destiny, continued to our own day. If some political leaders were messianists, the perception of America as an experiment conducted by mortals of limited wisdom and power without divine guarantee informed the practical intelligence of others. The second Roosevelt saw life as uncertain and the national destiny as problematic. The republic was still an experiment and “demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Roosevelt’s realism kept American participation in the Second World War closer to a sense of national interest than of world mission. In a later time John Kennedy argued that antimessianic case: “We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient—that we are only 6 per cent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 per cent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” “Before my term has ended,” he said in his first annual message, “we shall have to test anew whether a nation organized and governed such as ours can endure. The outcome is by no means certain.”