The Search For A Usable Past


Nothing in the history of American nationalism is more impressive than the speed and the lavishness with which Americans provided themselves with a usable past: history, legends, symbols, paintings, sculpture, monuments, shrines, holy days, ballads, patriotic songs, heroes, and—with some difficulty—villains. Henry James speaks somewhere of his old friend Emerson dwelling for fifty years “within the undecorated walls of his youth.” To Emerson they did not seem undecorated, for he embellished them with a rich profusion of historical association and of memory: the author of “Concord Hymn” was not unaware of the past.

Not every American, to be sure, was as deeply rooted as Emerson, but even to newcomers America soon ceased to be undecorated. Uncle Sam was quite as good as John Bull, and certainly more democratic. The bald eagle (Franklin sensibly preferred the turkey, but was overruled) did not compare badly with the British lion and was at least somewhat more at home in America than the lion in Britain. The Stars and Stripes, if it did not fall straight out of heaven like Denmark’s Dannebrog , soon had its own mythology, and it had, besides, one inestimable advantage over all other flags, in that it provided an adjustable key to geography and a visible evidence of growth. Soon it provided the stuff for one of the greatest of all national songs—the tune difficult but the sentiments elevated—and one becoming to a free people. The Declaration of Independence was easier to understand than Magna Carta, and parts of it could be memorized and recited—as Magna Carta could not. In addition it had a Liberty Bell to toll its fame, which was something the British never thought of. There were no less than two national mottoes— E pluribus unum , selected, so appropriately, by Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, and Novus ordo seclorum , with their classical origins. There were no antiquities, but there were shrines: Plymouth Rock, of course, and Independence Hall and Bunker Hill and Mount Vernon and Monticello; eventually there was to be the Log Cabin in which Lincoln was born, as indestructible as the hull of the Mayflower .

These were some of the insignia, as it were, the ostentatious manifestations of the possession of a historical past. The stuff of that past was crowded and rich; it is still astonishing that Americans managed to fill their historical canvas so elaborately in so short a time. The colonial era provided a remote past: Pocahontas saving John Smith; the Pilgrims landing on the sandy coast of Plymouth, and celebrating the first Thanksgiving; Roger Williams fleeing through the wintry storms to Narragansett Bay; William Penn treating with the Indians; Deerfield going up in flames, its captives trekking through the snow to distant Canada; Franklin walking the streets of Philadelphia, munching those “three great puffy rolls” that came to be permanent props.

The Revolution proved a veritable cornucopia of heroic episodes and memories: Washington crossing the Delaware; Washington dwelling at Valley Forge; the signing of the Declaration; Captain Parker at Lexington Common: “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here!”; Prescott at Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”; John Paul Jones closing with the Serapis: “I have not yet begun to fight!”; Nathan Hale on the gallows: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”; Tom Paine writing the first Cm on the flat of a drum, by the flickering light of campfires; George Rogers Clark wading through the flooded Wabash bottom lands to capture Vincennes; Washington at Yorktown: “The World Turned Upside Down"; Washington, again, fumbling for his glasses at Newburgh: “I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind"; Washington even in Heaven, not a pagan Valhalla but a Christian Heaven, doubly authenticated by a parson and a historian—one person to be sure—the incomparable Parson Weems.

The War of 1812, for all its humiliations, made its own contributions to national pride. Americans conveniently forgot the humiliations and recalled the glories: Captain Lawrence off Boston Harbor: “Don’t give up the ship”; the Constitution riddling the Guerrière ; Francis Scott Key peering through the night and the smoke to see if the flag was still there; Perry at Put-in-Bay: “We have met the enemy and they are ours”; the hunters of Kentucky repulsing Pakenham—

There stood John Bull in Martial pomp But here was old Kentucky.

No wonder Old Hickory went straight to the White House.

The West, too—not one West but many—provided a continuous flow of memories and experiences and came to be, especially for immigrants, a great common denominator. There was the West of the Indian; of Washington at Fort Necessity; the West of Daniel Boone; of Lewis and Clark; of the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush; the West of the miner and the cowboy; the West of the Union Pacific trail and the other transcontinentals. “If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism that we require,” asked Robert Louis Stevenson, “what was Troytown to this?” What indeed?