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The Search For A Usable Past
A distinguished historian describes how America, suddenly thrust into nationhood without a history of its own, set out to create one. And what a splendid achievement it was!
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
The habit of looking forward instead of back blended readily enough with Manifest Destiny. Thus John Louis O’Sullivan, who all but invented Manifest Destiny, cheerfully dismissed the past in favor of the future: “We have no interest in scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena. We are entering on its untrodden space with the truth of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits on our onward march? … The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. …”
There was nothing surprising in Emerson’s conclusion that America had no past. “All,” he said, “has an outward and prospective look.” For transcendentalism —the first genuine expression of the American temperament in philosophy, or New England’s at least—was impatient with origins, put its confidence in inspiration, looked upon each day as a new epoch and each man as an Adam. It is difficult lo exaggerate the impatience of the transcendentalists with the past. It was not so much that they were opposed to it as that they found it irrelevant. And note that New England’s major historians—Bancroft, Prescott, Ticknor, Motley, and Parkman—were all outside the mainstream of transcendentalism.
This was all very well, this confidence in the future. But it was, after all, pretty thin fare for nationalism to feed on at a time when other selfconscious nations were rejoicing in an ancient and romantic past. To be sure, the past became ancient and the future became present more rapidly in America than anywhere else: thus Thomas Jefferson could write from Paris in 1787 that much was to be said for keeping the “good, old, venerable, fabrick” of the six-year-old Articles of Confederation. And thus, too, John Randolph, in the Virginia ratifying convention, could “take farewell of the Confederation, with reverential respect, as an old benefactor.”
Happily, there was a second formula to which Americans had recourse, and one no less convenient than the first: that America had, in fact, the most impressive of all pasts; all Europe was the American past. After all, we speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake—and for good measure, the tongues of Luther and Racine and Dante and Cervantes as well. Just because Americans had crossed the Atlantic Ocean did not mean that they had forfeited or repudiated their heritage. Americans enjoyed, in fact, the richest and most varied of all heritages. Other benighted peoples had only their past—the Danes a Danish, the Germans a German—but Americans had them all. Were we not in very truth a teeming nation of nations? Edward Everett asserted this as early as 1820: “We suppose that in proportion to our population Lord Byron and Walter Scott are more read in America than in England, nor do we see why we are not entitled to our full share of all that credit which does not rest … in the person of the author. …” Whitman made this the burden of “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood”:
Sail, sail thy best, ship of Democracy, Of value is thy freight, ‘tis not the Present only, The Past is also stored in thee, Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone, not of the Western Continent alone, Earth’s résumé entire floats on thy keel O ship, is steadied by thy spars , … Steer then with a good strong hand, and wary eye O helmsman, thou carriest great companions, Venerable priestly Asia sails this day with thee, And royal feudal Europe sails with thee.
All very well, but a risky business, this assimilation of the Old World past. For could the Old World be trusted? Could the past be trusted? We come here to one of the major themes of American intellectual history, and one of the most troublesome of all the problems in the creation of a usable past.
The theme of New World innocence and Old World corruption emerged early, and persisted all through the nineteenth century: it is a constant of American literature as of American politics, and if it no longer haunts our literature, it still bedevils our politics and diplomacy.