Commitment To Posterity


How explain this ever-present consciousness of posterity and of the fiduciary obligation that was owed it? It was not, to be sure, confined to America; it was part of the philosophy, and the psychology, of the Enlightenment, but nowhere else did it flourish as it did in the new American republic. This was natural enough. After all, America was, quite literally, the future. It had come late on the historical scene; it was the one place on earth where man might carry on new experiments in government, economy, society, even in morals, under circumstances that were auspicious. If there was to be a secular millenium, it would be here. That was what the Englishman Tom Paine meant when he said that the American was “a new Adam in a new Paradise”; that was what the Frenchman Crèvecoeur meant when he wrote that Americans are “a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.”

The future—it came to be an article of faith—belonged to America. Here, in this new world, man could at last vindicate those talents that nature and God had given him but that had heretofore always been frustrated. For now, at last, man was free from the tyranny of the Monarch, the Priest, and the Warrior, the tyranny of hunger and want, of ignorance and superstition, the tyranny even of the past, of history. “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” wrote Jefferson, and in this he spoke for his countrymen—then and now.

Only posterity could fulfill the dreams of the future—that axiom remained true for generation after generation of immigrants to whom America was, in very fact, the future, and for generations of native-born Americans, too, who joined in the “marching song” of the pioneers—

Then o’er the hills in legions, boys Fair freedom’s star Points to the sunset regions, boys

—and started life anew on distant frontiers. Those who came from the Old World to the New, those who followed “fair freedom’s star,” looked to posterity to vindicate their great gamble, and not always in vain.

Over a century before independence it had been said of Virginians that “they had no need of ancestors; they themselves were ancestors.” That might have been one of the mottoes for the new country, harmonizing well with Novus Ordo Seclorum and Annuit Coeptis . For one reason Americans looked ardently to the future was that they had so little past. Crèvecoeur had remarked, in the Farmer’s Letters, that the wretched emigrant from the Old World quite literally had no country: ”…in Europe they were as so many useless plants … but now by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished.” No wonder, then, that they chose to forget their ancestors and themselves become ance eors. A few years later the novelist James Paulding put it well: “It is for other nations to boast of what they have been, and muse over the history of their youthful exploits that only renders their decrepitude more conspicuous. Ours is the more animating sentiment of hope, looking forward with prophetic eye.”

This reliance on posterity to fulfill the American—and the human—destiny was translated into law and official policy. Thus the Constitution was indeed designed to “endure for ages to come.” Thus the new system of substituting coordinate states for what had heretofore been subordinate colonies was applied not only to Vermont and Kentucky, which were part of the original thirteen states, but to all the immense territory westward to the Pacific. Thus the most generous land policy in history was designed to facilitate the creation of new commonwealths and to provide economic and social opportunity for newcomers who might realize the “American dream.” Thus the religion of education was invoked to lift the level of enlightenment for every new generation. All of these were designed to fulfill the obligation to posterity and to vindicate the American conviction that the future would always be better than the past.