America: Experiment or Destiny?

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This evoked the mood of the Founding Fathers. But the belief in national righteousness and providential destiny remains strong—a splendid triumph of dogma over experience. One cannot but feel that this belief has encouraged our recent excesses in the world and that the republic has lost much by forgetting what James called “the older American nature.” For messianism is an illusion. No nation is sacred and unique, the United States or any other. All nations are immediate unto God. America, like every country, has interests, real and fictitious; concerns, generous and selfish; motives, honorable and squalid. Providence has not set Americans apart from lesser breeds. We too are part of history’s seamless web.

Yet we retain one signal and extraordinary advantage over most nations—an entirely secular advantage, conferred upon us by those quite astonishing Founding Fathers. For they bequeathed us standards by which to set our course and judge our performance—and, since they were exceptional men, the standards have not been rendered obsolete even by the second law of thermodynamics. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution establish goals, imply commitments, and measure failures. The men who signed the Declaration, said Lincoln, “meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

We can take pride in our nation, not as we pretend to a commission from God and a sacred destiny, but as we struggle to fulfill our deepest values in an inscrutable world. As we begin our third century, we may well be entering our golden age. But we would be ill advised to reject the apprehensions of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, a due heed to those ancient anxieties may alone save us in the future. For America remains an experiment. The outcome is by no means certain. Only at our peril can we forget the possibility that the republic will end like Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald’s emblematic fable—Gatsby who had come so long a way and whose “dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

COPYRIGHT© 1977 BY ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER,JR.