Reading, Writing, And History

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America in 1854 struck him as “a wonderful mixture of all nations under heaven.” To tour America was to tour the world; here was everybody, “an ethnographic panorama,” with a new character somehow emerging from a fusion of the most diverse racial and cultural strains. The American nationality seemed to him to be unquestionably English at its base—but not English as Europeans understood the word. The “well-known spleen,” the stiff awkwardness and insular angularity of the English in Europe, had become modified, and by 1850 Schaff felt that “the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American, of all modern races, possess the strongest national character and the one best fitted for universal dominion, and that, too, not a dominion of despotism but one which makes its subjects free citizens.” For the Anglo-American was both liberal and conservative, with the impulse toward freedom inseparably joined to a sense of law and order; “I doubt whether the moral influence of Christianity and of Protestantism has more deeply and widely affected any nation, than it has the Anglo-Saxon.”

Considering what there was to see in America in the mid-1850’s, Schaff was either deluding himself or seeing very deeply indeed. The nation which he believed on its way toward “universal dominion” seemed then to be demonstrating that it could not even maintain secure dominion over its own acres. The Kansas-Nebraska act was jarring the country toward division, and the impulse toward law and order was not strong enough to prevent the wildest sort of lawlessness and disorder along the Kansas frontier. To forecast a great world role for such a country at such a time took an uncommonly perceptive glance.

America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character, by Philip Schaff; edited, with an introduction, by Perry Miller. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 241 pp. $4.25.

Schaff was undismayed. He could see trouble ahead, as clearly as anyone could, but he probably would have agreed with Mr. Wiltse’s finding: the die had already been cast. He believed the Americans were up to something immense: “They wrestle with the most colossal projects. The deepest meaning and aim of their political institutions are to actualize the idea of universal sovereignty, the education of every individual for intellectual and moral self-government and thus for true freedom.” Confidently, he asserted that “the grandest destiny is evidently reserved for such a people.” Then, as briskly as if the impending time of troubles had already been passed, he proclaimed:

In short, if anywhere in the wide world a new page of universal history has been unfolded and a new fountain opened, fraught with incalculable curses or blessings for future generations, it is in the Republic of the United States with her starspangled banner. Either humanity has no earthly future and everything is tending to destruction, or this future lies- I say not exclusively, but mainly—in America, according to the victorious march of history, with the sun from east to west.