From Many: Celebrating and Getting It Right
National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
What Is An American?
April 30, 2005
Thank you so much for having invited me to join you in this important
conversation. I am most appreciative of this honor. And given the themes addressed by previous panels and the
concluding nature of this one, also forgive me for wilfully interpreting E
Pluribus Unum in a somewhat unusual manner, that is, as not concerning
American states as was its eighteenth-century meaning, but rather individuals.
Accordingly, in my talk I offer my understanding of what makes an
American, celebrate our enduring ability to create Americans from diverse
peoples and what this demonstrates, suggest how this process is often
misunderstood by partisans on the left and right, and close with a plea
for a renewed focus on such issues while attempting to restore scholarly
integrity to contemporary American colleges and universities, in particular, in
regard to the role enjoyed by political theorists.
What is An
Careful students of American immigration, such as Thomas Sowell, have
demonstrated that the United States has consistently transformed wave after wave
of immigrants from diverse cultures into something recognizable as Americans. But what is this entity into which American immigrants are
transformed? Above all else, what
I believe may define Americans is their ability to govern themselves, that is,
as individuals, in small self-regulating families and groups, and more broadly
as a sub-national and ultimately a national people.
This demands that limits be placed on inexhaustible individual and group
wants, in large measure, through the operation of intimate over-lapping groups.
Indeed, it was the British authority's attempt to suspend American
self-government, as reported by learned and unlearned Americans alike, that
ultimately led to the political break between the peoples of North America and
What is so impressive about Americans is their ability to live with
freedom and exercise it, on the whole, as (ordered) liberty rather than license.
That is, Americans while exercising mutually reinforcing restraint have
kept freedom within the boundaries imposed by the responsible exercise of
liberty. This means, as well, that
unlike continental Europeans, Americans are a people who have lived with a
certain measure of hierarchy without either being captivated by or reactively
opposed to it. As our Puritan and
Revolutionary forebears made clear, their goal was not the creation of
democratic governance, but of popular government in which the voice of the many
and the accomplished few could each be duly heard. Often forgotten and far too often by those on the right, the
movements that led to America's independence from Great Britain and to the
adoption of our current Constitution were powerfully shaped by mid-state and
southern conservatives who were as concerned with preventing the rise of
democratic government as they were in defending the right of Americans to govern
As a cursory examination of the history of modern France demonstrates,
being able to live with freedom and a measured degree of hierarchy are not
skills universally present among Europeans to say nothing of those raised in
still more dissimilar cultures. Yet,
again, what is so striking about America, past and present, has been its ability
to transform various peoples, within one to three generations, into individuals
capable of self-government, into Americans.
It is clear that whatever it is that helps immigrants in America develop
these skills, it has worked. About
this, we can surely agree even if the causes are more likely to lead to debate.
Americans: E Pluribus Unum
But what is it, as least in my opinion, that lies at the foundation of
this culture that has successfully turned men and women, or at least their
grand-children, into self-governing individuals and groups?
It is, as I have tediously argued for the past decade (and of late have
begun to enjoy some success), the formative power of (1) a Hebraic Reformed
Protestant culture, (2) embedded in an English legal and political order with
(3) an added emphasis on joint-stock legal codes and charter-derived political
structures. Although these were
almost wholly accidental or, if you prefer Providential, features of the initial
English migrations to North America, these institutions took on in America
populist, localist, legalist, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, and low-brow
cultural qualities that by the end of the eighteenth century distinguished
colonists from metropolitan British. Even
as the religious impulse lessened in some -- though in fact few -- as the end of
the eighteenth century approached, the central liturgical (puritan), theological
(Augustinian), and ecclesiastic (congregational) features of Reformed Protestantism,
along with English legal and constitutional forms and institutions, continued to
shape the American political, legal, and cultural landscape. (Let me add, parenthetically, that similarly, America has
also been importantly shaped by what it lacked: Catholicism, an entrenched
feudal aristocracy, and close and warring neighbors.)
America, I believe, has continued to produce Americans out of
disparate peoples because of the continued formative power of its largely
Reformed and Pietistic Protestant and English legal and political inheritances,
and the lived nature of these norms and institutions as shaped by America's
geography, economic resources, and the self-same diverse peoples.
Yet, many of our forefathers, such as Benjamin Franklin, believed that
only Englishmen could fully live the life developed by their cousins in America.
We now know that they were fundamentally wrong and that Southern European
serfs, Catholics of all sorts, ill-mannered Russian Jews, Chinese and Japanese
deferential peasants, and women can be transformed into self-governing citizens.
America, thus, truly has been a light onto the world in demonstrating
that most men and women, when properly enculturated, corporately constrained,
and living under short chains of responsible hierarchy, are capable of
America has proved that its culture, and inherited norms and political institutions can be adopted by almost all peoples when they are properly embedded in a receptive host culture. But based on this same experience, there is no reason to believe that the norms and institutions that America has developed, by intention or more often through happenstance, can work to produce the same results without appropriate cultural antecedents. As contemporary Japan and Germany suggest, under the right conditions, much can be accomplished in achieving similar results elsewhere when such elements, even if different from our own, are present.
But for most of our national history and by too many of the right,
Americans have been characterized very differently than that found in the
portrait sketched here. Instead, we
are told that America is exceptional in being a nation founded not on a
particular cultural model, a unique history, or distinct religious and political
institutions, but rather on an idea that is universal and readily transplantable
to other lands with little concern whether the receiving culture is hospitable
or the people prepared to exercise freedom responsibly.
America is believed to embody the idea of individual equality as derived
from distant works of political philosophy that can then explain what Americans
failed to express in their lived lives or most of their public documents.
In this rendering of American history, Americans are not a people
preeminently formed by Reformed and Pietistic religious inheritances and
historical English political rights and institutions, but instead by a secular
theology, a rarified individualistic political philosophy, and abstract rights
and political institutions.
This universal language of abstract rights and innate equality, and
freedom unconstrained was, unsurprisingly, viewed with disdain by the
brilliant and numerous conservatives from the middle colonies -- men who should
be the heros of men and women in this audience -- and embraced enthusiastically
by French authors and those Americans, too often errantly celebrated by
contemporary conservatives, most influenced by them.
In a perverse way, select American elite (and many of their populist
followers) borrowed their self-understanding from the French so that America
might become the universalistic model upon which the French and others might
build utopian edifices. Of course,
what has regularly strained Franco-American relations has been that their model
of America was more French than American and, therefore, an authentic America
resting on its historical Protestant and English foundations proved consistently
disappointing, as was true then and continues true today -- little has changed.
of the Left and Right
This vision of America is embraced by both theory-intoxicated partisans
of the left, but more surprisingly, also by far too many conservatives who
otherwise distance themselves from French Revolutionary thought.
Let me suggest, therefore, that a robust understanding of America's
exceptional features is endangered not only by those on the cultural and
political left, but as well by many on the right.
On the left stand cosmopolitan liberal internationalists who in recent
polls castigated America as one of the most morally defective and dangerous of
all nations. This largely results from Americans' continued adherence to
evangelical Protestantism, nationalism, market capitalism, and worst of all a
mild version of democratic populism. From
the perspective of European elites, embedded in their post-Catholic
internationalism, Europeans sacrificed much of the twentieth century
experimenting with nationalism, capitalism, and some measure of democratic
populism and, after millions of deaths and untold destruction, they rightly
concluded that these experiments were horrible failures.
Accordingly, Western European elite are returning to tried and true ways
of (1) elite-controlled internationalism married to (2) a universalistic secularism,
and (3) economic dirigisme. European
hostility towards America is readily understandable when framed against American
success in creating a level of popular self-government that Europeans can only
marvel at or disdain for its admitted vulgarity.
(As an aside, let me urge you to visit Europe as soon and as often as
possible for the opportunity to witness cultural suicide is something that
demands our attention. Here you
have a people who no longer wish to marry, have children, work much, form
religious bodies of faith, or engage in military activities and as such, they
should be observed, maybe even pitied, but never emulated.)
But as suggested above, America's exceptional political culture is not
only under attack from the left, but is being diminished by the embrace of
friends on the right. Following the
likes of Jefferson and Lincoln, contemporary defenders of America who insist
on understanding America through the lenses of political texts, are narrowing
America's self-understanding and making less comprehensible the rich
traditionalism, historical complexities, and Hebraic particularism that has made
this country so able to manage diverse pools of immigrants.
A correct understanding of America cannot be had by having high-school
students and teachers memorize the catechisms of political partisans working in
ideologically driven think-tanks, or by reading distant and largely irrelevant
texts in high political philosophy. Instead,
a vibrant understanding of this nation's fostering of popular self-governance
can only be accomplished through the close study of American lived norms and
institutions, and their historical development.
John Locke, no matter how masterfully read, cannot explain the changing
and variegated responses of thirteen deeply divided colonies to Britain imperial
Towards a New
Study of Western Ideas and American Civilization
What is needed, then, is a turning away from the artificial American
landscapes painted by political theorists bereft of the necessary training and
methodological tools to explore an America, most importantly, without (1) great
works in political philosophy and (2) few, if any, great authors, thus allowing
for a return to the intensive and close study of American history.
The authentic features of American history are far more interesting and
illuminating than the bizarrely barren histories offered by political
theorists overly committed to the undemonstrated importance of great works in
political philosophy and little, if any concern, with the means by which such
ideas were putatively disseminated. America's
war of separation from Britain, even it cruelly unnecessary, and France's
Revolution, for example, offer wonderful materials for better understanding
the dangers of too rapid a democratization.
Such an account, when fully developed, could guide us in better
understanding why the French Revolution, with its universalism and abstract
rights, was so unsuccessful and our minimally ambitious war of independence,
with its late and not wholly convincing articulation of similar claims, was so
much more successful.
Thus, to understand the genius of America and its unparalleled ability to
produce Americans from disparate materials, friends of America must encourage
the renewed study of American history and culture, a new study of
American Ideas and Civilization. In
fact, at a college like Colgate, where I teach, one of the few areas of study
one cannot pursue, is the political history and religion of America's dominant
white populations; the sociology, beliefs, values and norms of America's
contemporary majority; or the politics of American states and localities. Accordingly, as the NEH in a recent symposium discovered,
what is sorely needed is a renewed focus on the study of American history and
culture by scholars unguided by fashionable political sensibilities of the left
Unfortunately, in spite of the splendid efforts of the NEH, the Liberty
Fund, and the Earhart, Bradley and Olin Foundations, vastly more needs to be
done; the current turn to insular university centers without permanent lines
populated by improperly trained political theorists who confuse overly broad
teaching activities with necessarily narrower scholarly ones, is not the answer.
In fact, such centers are destructive in their overemphasis on the
guiding role of political philosophy in the creation of America.
Far more pernicious, though, is their propaganda value to politicized
university administrations who use them in defending their political agendas
before incensed but easily misled alumni.
A new American studies focusing on Western thought, as
differentiated as it truly has been, and American norms and institutions must be
moved to the center of university and college curricula and this must occur
before the current generation of professional historians, such as the likes in
early American history of Professors McDonald, Wood, Bailyn, Morgan, and Greene
withdraw from active scholarship. With
their prestige and knowledge, following perversely in the footsteps of the
pioneers of women's studies programs, they can help shape and lend credibility
to the creation of new programs in American studies with appropriate links to
and financial incentives for, those working in other fields of study.
As well, increased formation of scholars in regularly constituted
departments can be enhanced by means of graduate and early professional support
(much of this, thankfully, has already begun).
Only in this way, is the truly exceptional genius of this remarkable
accidental or, if you prefer, Providential nation to be better understood,
protected, and extended to future generations.
We must, therefore, do everything possible to take back the universities
so that our children can be made aware of their most unusual inheritance.