What makes the United States special? Americans have always been a contentious lot. Many of the disagreements and differences we know today have been with us from the beginning. How does our history influence our understanding of ourselves and our views?
Can we look beyond our disputes to see the extraordinary place of America in human history?
During the formative years of this nation something remarkable was taking place in the countries Americans were coming from. Radically new ideas were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and traditional attitudes in Europe.
Thinking people were becoming convinced that humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, would be capable of securing universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.
And so, a rebellious spirit and immense creative energy came to America with a rising flood of immigration. The idea of a promising future was powerful.
For the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, however, a knowledge of political philosophy was not required. Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the American identity.
Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American spirit, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of an autocratic culture and restrictive social norms.
There were abundant crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet. We did not agree on much.
The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between wealthy and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.
Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of European arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy. Despite apparent contradictions, the new vision of the future continued to inspire confidence on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.
While the continuing brutality experienced by Black and Native American peoples was ignored by most Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the nation.
And then came the twentieth century.
Professor Michael Allen Gillespie at Duke University describes what happened next:
“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. What had gone wrong?
“Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience.
“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction. And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation.
“The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”
We have admired the generation of Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II. We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.” They did not forget.
They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand. Most are gone now. How many of us today know what they knew–we who drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt?
Both the fear of debt and the destruction of total war have been repressed and lost to memory.
The long history of abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten as well. And past promises of equality and freedom are remembered through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.
The material limitations caused by growing complexity and a multitude of crises have started to close in on our lives.
An American future will be dark and unforgiving without moral responsibility and authentic community. Such are the means for both survival and prosperity.
It is said that history does not repeat—but often rhymes.
You may watch for the next post on or about May 24.
Note to new readers: A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with several sample chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.