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Reading, Writing And History
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
A national conscience can be a very strange thing, especially when the nation involved is America. It is not quite the same as the conscience of an individual human being, the chief difference being that it tends to operate after the event; that is, it functions less to keep society from sin than to bring about a return to first principles after the sin has been committed. It is the embodiment of the nation’s prevailing moral values, the deep essence of the lasting beliefs that give the nation its character; to trace its history is to examine the faith of an entire people and to see how that faith is perennially readjusted under the pressure of a changing environment.
Such a historical study is performed by Roger Burlingame in a brooding, thoughtful book entitled The American Conscience. Its great virtue is that it provides a new viewpoint from which to survey what the American people have done and what they have failed to do, and it leaves one once more with the feeling that the American experience has been deeply and significantly unique.
At the base of the national conscience, says Mr. Burlingame, lies the hard core of Calvinism that goes straight back to New England. But although this core was, and is, uncommonly tough, it has been profoundly wrought upon by three things peculiar to America—by the physical and spiritual isolation of Americans, by the immense influence of the frontier (wide open, steadily retreating, and then finally closing forever), and by the incredible natural wealth which was waiting to be exploited. The result was a strange sea change, not anticipated by the founding fathers. The harsh rigidities of the old Puritan doctrine became transmuted into a warm and intimate faith, broad enough to embrace the ideals of freedom and liberty that could unite an entire people.
Out of all of this, says Mr. Burlingame, we got an unexpected mixture: a strong basic morality which always enables the nation to recover from its worst lapses, overlaid by memories which at times provoke a desperate desire to regain an earlier dream. Isolation is gone and the frontier is gone, and the illimitable endowment of natural wealth has changed beyond recognition; yet a people whose inner faith leads it constantly to look to the future is impelled, periodically, to try to get back to a time when those things had not changed and when life seemed a great deal simpler and more reassuring. So we do odd things; we try to re-establish the old isolation, we try to live again by frontier law and customs, we give lip service to slogans and catch phrases that were born when a virgin continent was only beginning to yield its riches. It never works—and when these foredoomed longings lead us into deplorable excesses (which does happen, now and then) we come to, finally, with a re-examination of our conscience and a determination to try to do better hereafter.
For the chief service of this American conscience has perhaps been the deep resilience with which it has equipped the American character. Our ethical sense may at times lie inactive in the face of the grossest misbehavior, but it always compels us, eventually, to look back, to lament the wrongs that have been done, and to make a fresh start toward the future. As Mr. Burlingame points out, the true significance of the famous Salem witch hunt was not the fact that a number of innocent people were hanged, but that the New England conscience arose afterward and led to a salutary public repentance.
Furthermore, we are driven at times to put our noblest ideals into words by which we thereafter are obliged to live. There is, for instance, the Declaration of Independence—which, as Mr. Burlingame remarks, was essentially a creed, “a body of doctrine on which much of the social and political philosophy of a nation has been built.” The authors of the Declaration set forth such concepts as the God-given equality of all men as self-evident truths. At that moment, however, those truths were not self-evident at all; they were nothing more than the statement of a compelling ideal which was taking shape inside the American heart and mind, and we have been working ever since to put them into practical effect. Generation after generation, here is the profession of faith which Americans can never forget; “It keeps coming back to wake us at night, to shame us into reforming legislation, to stir us, indeed, to war against those who exploit the inequalities of man.”
The American Conscience, by Roger Burlingame. Alfred A. Knopf. 420 pp. $6.75.
Out of this have come the bitter struggles to end slavery, to wipe out racial discrimination, and to maintain an undying opposition to the monstrosities of the police state. Hand in hand with these struggles, to be sure, have come moments of bleak forgetfulness; we wholeheartedly ground the Noble Red Man into the dust in order to possess his hunting grounds, we took by force of arms an empire away from Mexico, and in our war to bring Negro slavery to an end we neglected to pay much attention to the rights of other southerners. Yet we have never been able to be really complacent about such things. We can always recognize a wrong after we have committed it, and if it is then too late to undo it we usually do try to make such repairs as may be possible.