The vibrant community-based society of pre-revolutionary America continued to flourish following independence. With self-generated order came a sense of identity and belonging. But, a hundred years later the loss of community and degradation of society were becoming apparent.
This decline unfolded with the gradual disappearance of cultural organizations, interest associations, churches, and craft guilds. Without the mediating influence of extended families and civic associations, little remained to support social identity and stability for individual or society.
In the absence of a stable foundation in local communities, the commitment to moral responsibility loosened.
Eventually Americans sought community wherever they could find it—within the protection of large labor unions, in the less personal corporate world, and in the functions of a growing central government.
The rise of individualism in European culture since the middle-ages had accompanied a gradual diminishment of the civil society that gives life to communities. In America this trend was halted briefly by a surge of community-based activism. But, the blossoming of independent local and regional energy was lost in the faceless momentum of industrial society.
The results became clear following the First World War. Measures intended to ensure uncompromising support for the war effort gave President Woodrow Wilson virtually total power. Wilson intended a quick return to normal three years later, but the damage was done.
The widespread presence of government agents tasked with rooting out dissent led to pervasive distrust. Social cohesion was severely weakened throughout the country. The perceptions of the American people and the place of the federal government in the American mind were permanently altered.
What is to be learned?
Active involvement in community life does not limit individual freedom or self-fulfillment. On the contrary, local communities are the foundation of traditional conservatism. If we are to recover a civilized order, an active community-based civil society needs to be cultivated. Here it is that young people learn values and gain a sense of identity.
The spontaneous civic life that characterized early America degenerated over time into the isolation and materialism of suburbia, scattered families, and uninspiring employment.
Americans have had a reputation the world over as generous, kind, big-hearted people–despite hardships and controversies. Yet, the truth has been inconsistent. An uneven trend toward inclusiveness since the Civil War stands in contrast to an undercurrent of disharmony and an attitude that defies accountability.
Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Clearly, the humanity that embraces mutual respect and moral responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to self-centered interests. Failures of foresight and responsibility are visible across every social class, including the very wealthy.
Children are growing up without effective parenting or civilized values. Every consecutive generation reaches maturity with less of the preparation needed to sustain a stable society. And, it does not end there. Institutions we have depended upon are facing every form of bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.
How is it that we have lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but it might be more personal than we realize.
“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue. `No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,’ James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. `To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
“No free government, or the blessings of liberty,” Patrick Henry insisted, “can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”
“In their various ways,” Charles Murray has observed, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”
You may watch for the next post on or about June 22.