- Historic Sites
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
How deeply they were shocked, these innocent Americans, by the goings on in Europe! Benjamin Franklin, alter a long residence in England, cotdd deprecate the notion of a reconciliation between the Americans and the mother country on moral grounds: “I have not heard what Objections were made to the Plan in the Congress, nor would I make more than this one, that, when 1 consider the extreme Corruption prevalent among all Ortlers of ‘Men in this old rotten State, and the glorious publick Virtue so predominant in our rising Country, I cannot but apprehend more Mischief than Benefit from a closer Union.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had studied in Edinburgh and in London, never ceased lo preach the danger of contamination from abroad. With Jefferson—surely the most cosmopolitan American of his generation—New World innocence and Old World corruption was almost an idée fixe . How illuminating, that famous letter to John Banister about the education of his son. “Why send an American youth to Europe for education? … Let us view the disadvantages. … To enumerate them all, would require a volume. I will select a few. If he goes to England, he learns drinking, horse racing, and boxing. These are the peculiarities of English education. The following circumstances are common to education in that, and the other countries of Europe. He acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country; he is fascinated with the privileges of the European aristocrats and sees, with abhorrence, the lovely equality which the poor enjoy with the rich, in his own country; he contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy; he forms foreign friendships which will never be useful to him … he is led, by the strongest of all the human passions, into a spirit for female intrigue, destructive of his own and others’ happiness, or a passion for whores, destructive of his health, and, in both cases, learns Io consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice. … It appears to me, then, that an American coming to Europe for education, loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness. …”
The theme, and the arguments, persisted. Hezekiah Niles wrote on the eve of the War of 1812 that “the War, dreadful as it is, will not be without its benefits in … separating us from the strumpet governments of Europe .” It is the most persistent theme in American literature from Crèvecoeur to Tocqueville, from Hawthorne’s Marble Faun to James’ Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady , from Innocents Abroad to The Sun Also Rises . Something of its complexity and difficulty can be seen in the position of the expatriate. Here Americans long maintained a double standard; it was taken for granted not only that European immigrants to the United States give up their nationality and identify themselves with their adopted country, but that they do so exuberantly. But for Americans to give up their nationality and identify themselves with a foreign country was another matter altogether.
Needless to say, there are philosophical and psychological implications here which we ignore at our peril. For this concept of New World innocente and Old World corruption encouraged that sense of being a people apart which nature herself had already sufficiently dramati/.ed. How characteristic that Jefferson should have combined nature and morality in his first inaugural: “Kindly separated by nature from one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others. …” To this day Americans are inclined to think that they are somehow outside the stream of history, somehow exempt from its burden.
But quite aside from the theme of Old World corruption, the availability of the European past was not a simple matter of chronological assimilation or absorption. It was available, to be sure, but only on limited terms. It was there more for purposes of contrast than for enrichment; it pointed the moral of American superiority, and adorned the tale of American escape from contamination. It was there, too, as a museum, a curio shop, and a moral playground. But for practical purposes it contributed little to the juices of American Life.
Americans had a third choice: They could use what they had. “We have not, like England and France, centuries of achievements and calamities to look back on,” wrote the indefatigable diarist George Templeton Strong, “but being without the eras that belong to older nationalities—Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian, Hohenstaufen, Ghibelline, and so forth—we dwell on the details of our little all of historic life and venerate every trivial fact about our first settlers and colonial governors and revolutionary heroes.” Not all Americans struck so modest a pose. All their past lacked, after all, was antiquity, and antiquity was relative; in any event, this meant that the American past was better authenticated than the European.