HE genius of American democracy comes not from any special virtue of the American people but from the unprecedented opportunities of this continent and from a peculiar and unrepeatable combination of historical circumstances. These circumstances have given our institutions their character and their virtues. The very same facts which explain these virtues, explain also our inability to make a “philosophy” of them. They explain our lack of interest in political theory, and why we are doomed to failure in any attempt to sum up our way of life in slogans and dogmas. They explain, therefore, why we have nothing in the line of a theory that can be exported to other peoples of the world.
The thesis of this book is that nothing could be more un-American than to urge other countries to imitate America. We should not ask them to adopt our “philosophy” because we have no philosophy which can be exported. My argument is simple. It is based on forgotten commonplaces of American history– facts so obvious that we no longer see them. I argue, in a word, that American democracy is unique. It possesses a “genius” all its own. By this I mean what the Romans might have described as the tutelary spirit assigned to our nation at its birth and presiding over its destiny. Or what we more prosaically might call a characteristic disposition of our culture.
In one sense, of course, everybody has a political theory, even if it is expressed only in hostility to theories. But this is a barren paradox, concealing more than it discovers. In our political life we have been like Molière’s M. Jourdain, who was astonished to discover that all his life he had been speaking prose. We have not been much interested in the grammar of politics. We have been more interested in the way it works than in the theory behind it. Our unique history has thus offered us those benefits which come (in Edmund Burke’s words) “from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance” and has led us away from “extravagant and presumptuous speculations.”
The great political theorists — men like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau — even when not guilty of “extravagant and presumptuous speculations,” have been primarily interested in discovering and systematizing general truths about society, regardless of time and place. However much they may have differed in other matters, they have all had in common an attempt and abstract, to separate the universal principles of all societies and governments from the peculiar circumstances of their own society and government. Much of what we understand comes from the light which they have thrown, from their different vantage points, on the problem of government. The United States has never produced a political philosopher of their stature or a systematic theoretical work to rank with theirs.
But I mean something more when in this book I speak of our antipathy to political theory. Especially in our own age (and at least since the French Revolution of 1789), more and more of the world has sought in social theory no mere rationale for institutions but a blueprint for remaking society. Rousseau and Marx, for example, have been put to this use. Recent European politics shows us men of all complexions seeking an explicit orthodoxy for society. Burke was one of the first to note this tendency and its dangers, when he observed, “The bulk of mankind on their part are not excessively curious concerning any theories, whilst they are really happy; and one sure symptom or an ill-conducted state is the propensity of the people to resort to them.” A pretty good rule-of-thumb for us in the United States is that our national well-being is in inverse proportion to the sharpness and extent of the theoretical differences between our political parties.
The tendency to abstract the principles of political life may sharpen issues for the political philosopher. It becomes idolatry when it provides statesmen or a people with a blueprint for their society. The characteristic tyrannies of our age — naziism, fascism, and communism — have expressed precisely this idolatry. They justify their outrages because their “philosophies” require them.
One of the many good fortunes of American civilization has been the happy coincidence of circumstances which has led us away from such idolatry. It is my belief that the circumstances which have stunted our interest in political philosophy have also nourished our refusal to make our society into the graven image of any man’s political philosophy. In other ages this refusal might have seemed less significant; in ours it is a hallmark of a decent, free, and God-fearing society.
If what I say is true, it has profound consequences both for our understanding of ourselves and for our relation to Europe. It speaks to those who say that what we need in this country is a clearer “philosophy” of democracy. It speaks to those who think we should try to compete with Russians in a way of philosophies. This book adds up to warning that, if we rely on the “philosophy of American democracy” as a weapon in the worldwide struggle, we are relying on a weapon which may prove a dud. It may prove so because, as I shall try to show in this book, the peculiar strengths of American life have saved us from the European preoccupation with political dogmas and have left us inept and uninterested in political theory.
Anyone who has recently been abroad and heard the sort of thing we are telling the world can say that it does not sound very good. The portraits of American life are sometimes admirable — of the public library, the general store, and the volunteer fire department. But the statements of America believes (and therefore what Europe would be better by believing) make the American abroad uncomfortable, if not downright embarrassed. They say something which is not American at all, even if they are sometimes expressed with the engaging brashness of a Fourth of July oration. What is the matter with these general statements is not any weakness in our institutions or any special stupidity in our publicity writers. Actually, they are bad because of the peculiarities — and even the advantages of — our geography, our history, and our way of life.
To understand the uniqueness of American history is to begin to understand why no adequate theory of our political life can be written. It will also help us to see why our institutions cannot be transplanted to other parts of the world. In the present world struggle, therefore, we should not hope to convert peoples to an American theory of government to expect to save western Europe from communism by transplanting American institutions. I want to develop this thesis not by discussing the rest of the world but by underlining a few facts of American history.
Although I set out from some of the most familiar facts of our past, in the course of this argument I shall lead you to some unfamiliar — and even paradoxical–conclusions about our political life. To understand these conclusions, you will need to reject some of the most widely accept clichés about us. These clichés have been manufactured by our European friends and enemies. They go back to propaganda about us several centuries old, the labels made by the age of George III and earlier, which have stuck with amazing effectiveness.
From the earliest days, romantic Europeans have touted America as the country of novelty, of the unexpected and the untried, of grand visions and aspirations, where man could try out his latest inventions and test all those vagaries which were impossible in a conservative Europe. At the same time, conservative Europeans have attacked us for these very same dispositions, which to them, of course, have seemed vices. For many decades we were the Utopia of radicals and the Babel of conservatives. We have been given a reputation for being a country without tradition, without wholesome continuity in institutions, where anything might happen. This is what Europeans have agreed on, and their unanimity has forced our not always grudging assent. Now it is my thesis that, whatever may have been our weaknesses, this is not one of them.
I shall try to show how American history has nourished in a very special way and to an extraordinary degree our feeling for that principle of social science which I shall later call the “seamlessness” of culture. It is enough for the present to say that all this denies the stock European picture of us. Our geography and history have led us to an unspoken assumption, an axiom, so basic to our thinking that we have hardly been aware of it at all. This is the axiom that institutions are not and should not be the grand creations of men toward large ends and outspoken values; rather they are the organisms which grow out of the soil in which they are rooted and out of tradition from which they have sprung. Our history has fitted us, even against our will, to understand the meaning of conservatism. We have become the exemplars of the continuity of history and of the fruits which come from cultivating institutions suited to a time and place, in continuity with the past.
This point, if it is true, has special importance today. For the first time in modern history, and to an extent not true even in the age of the French Revolution, Europe has become the noisy champion of man’s power to make over his culture at will. Communism is, in one sense, the extravagances of the French Revolution rewritten on the Gargantuan scale and acting with the terrifying efficiency of the twentieth century. People all over Europe have been accustomed, since the eighteenth century, to the notion that man can better his condition by trying to remake his institutions in some colossal image. Fascism and Naziism proposed this; and so does communism. Europe has not yet realized that they remedy it seeks is itself a disease.
In this book I shall be describing some of those peculiarities of our history which in the past have helped save us from the romantic illusion. We cannot properly understand them without defining clearly our own picture of our political character. In my first chapter I will describe some of the most general characteristics of American political thought. Chapters ii, iii, and iv will deal, in turn, with three great crises: the Puritan struggle against the wilderness, the American Revolution, and the Civil War. In each case I shall try to discover the effect of the event on our traditional attitude toward political theory, at the same time seeing how each crisis illustrates characteristics which run through all our history. Then, in chapter v, I shall turn to the special relation between religion and political thought in the United States and the peculiar significance of our talkativeness about our ideals. In my last chapter I shall try to draw together the threads, to see what, if anything, can be generalized about political theory. Is there perhaps a theory behind our theory, which might itself have some validity as a conscious principle of political thought?
HOW BELIEF IN THE EXISTENCE OF AN AMERICAN THEORY HAS MADE A THEORY SUPERFLUOUS
THE American must go outside his country and hear the voice of America to realize that his is one of the most spectacularly lopsided cultures in all history. The marvelous success and vitality of our institutions is equaled by the amazing poverty and inarticulateness of our theorizing about politics. No nation has ever believed more firmly that its political life was based on a perfect theory. And yet no nation has ever been less interested political philosophy or produced less in the way of theory. If we can explain this paradox, we shall have a key to much that is characteristic — and much that is good — in our institutions.
In this chapter I shall attempt an explanation. I start from the notion that the two sides of the paradox explain each other. The very same facts which account for our belief that we actually possess a theory also explain why we have had little interest in political theories and have never bothered seriously to develop them.
For the belief that an explicit political theory is superfluous precisely because we already somehow possess a satisfactory equivalent, I propose the name “givenness.” “Givenness” is the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us. The notion, as I shall outline it in the present chapter, has three faces, which I shall describe in turn. First is the notion that we have received our values as a gift from the past; that the earliest settlers or Founding Fathers equipped our nation at its birth with a perfect and complete political theory, adequate to all our future needs.
The second is the notion that in America we receive values as a gift from the present, that our theory is always implicit in our institutions. This is the idea that the “American Way of Life” harbors an “American Way of Thought” which can do us for a political theory, even if we never make it explicit or never are in a position to confront ourselves with it. It is the notion that to Americans political theory never appears in its nakedness but always clothed in the peculiar American experience. We like to think that, from the shape of the living experience, we can guess what lies underneath and that such a guess is good enough–perhaps actually better than any naked theory. While according to the first axiom of “givenness” our values are the gift of our history, according to the second they are the gift of our landscape.
The third part of “givenness” is a belief which links these two axioms. It is a belief in the continuity or homogeneity of our history. It is the quality of our experience which makes us see our national past as an uninterrupted continuum of similar events, so that our past merges indistinguishably into our present. This sense of continuity is what makes it easy for us to accept the two first axioms at the same time: the idea of a preformed original theory given to us by the Founding Fathers, and the idea of an implicit theory always offered us by our present experience. Our feeling of continuity in our history makes it easy for us to see the Founding Fathers as our contemporaries. It induces us to draw heavily on the materials of our history, but always in a distinctly antihistorical frame of mind. I. VALUES GIVEN BY THE PAST: THE PREFORMATION IDEAL
Now I shall begin by trying to explain what I have called the first axiom of “givenness”: the idea that values are a gift from our past. Here we face our conscious attitude toward our past and toward our way of inheriting from it. This particular aspect of the “givenness” idea may be likened to the obsolete biological notion of “preformation.” That is the idea that all parts of an organism preexist in perfect miniature in the seed. Biologists used to believe that if you could look at the seed of an apple under a strong enough microscope you would sec in it a minute apple tree. Similarly, we seem still to believe that if we could understand the ideas of the earliest settlers–the Pilgrim Fathers or Founding Fathers–we would find in them no mere seventeenth or eighteenth-century philosophy of government but the perfect embryo of the theory by which we now live. We believe, then, that the mature political ideals of the nation existed clearly conceived in the minds of our patriarchs. The notion is essentially static. It assumes that the values and theory of the nation were given once and for all in the very beginning.
What circumstances of American history have made such a view possible? The first is the obvious fact that, unlike western European countries, where the coming of the first white man is shrouded in prehistoric mist, civilization in the United States stems from people who came to the American continent at a definite period in recent history. For American political thought this fact has had the greatest significance. We have not found it necessary to invent an Aeneas, for we have had our William Bradford and John Winthrop, or, looking to a later period, our Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. We have needed no Virgil to make a myth of the first settlement of our land or the first founding of the Republic; the crude facts of history have been good enough.
The facts of our history have thus made it easy for us to assume that our national life, as distinguished from that of the European peoples who trace their identity to a remote era, has had a clear purpose. Life in America–appropriately called “The American Experiment”–has again and again been described as the test or the proof of values supposed to have been clearly in the minds of the Founders. While, as we shall see, the temper of much of our thought has been antihistorical, it is nevertheless true that we have leaned heavily on history to clarify our image of ourselves. Perhaps never before, except conceivably in the modern state of Israel, has a nation so firmly believed that it was founded on a full-blown theory and hence that it might understand itself by recapturing a particular period in its past.
This idea is actually so familiar, so deeply imbedded in our thinking, that we have never quite recognized it as a characteristic, much less a peculiarity, of our political thought. Nor have we become aware of its implications. “Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg in 1863, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We have forgotten that these words are less the statement of a political theory than an affirmation that an adequate theory already existed at the first epoch of national life. As we shall see in a later chapter, this belief itself helps account for the way in which the traditional, conservative, and inarticulate elements of our Revolution have been forgotten. A few slogans have been eagerly grasped as if they gave the essence of our history. While the conservative and legal aspect of our Revolution has remained hidden from popular view, schoolboys and popular orators (who seldom read beyond the preambles of legal documents) have conceived the Declaration of Independence as writ...