What I Mean by “America”

 

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Luke Phillips

What is America? What do we mean when, backing President Donald Trump, we say “Make America Great Again?” Or alternatively, backing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we say “America already is great.” What is it that is great or needs to be made great again? What do we inhabit, what do we fight for, what is the idea of America?

This debate has raged for centuries, with some proclaiming America to be a set of universal ideals, others claiming it to be a blood-and-soil nation with institutions and culture, and most arguing that it’s something of the latter that happens to have the former.

I view America as something even more obscure and complex- a set of historical experiences linked by common themes, through which a nation of people, a cultural legacy, and a great institutional state have been built over the course of nearly four centuries. America cannot be understood merely as the agglomeration of peoples or a single people, a creedal code of universal liberal ideals, or a state just like any other. It is all of these and more. I choose to identify it through its experiences.

The great decades-long historic experiences described below- each of them a set, too, of ideas, experiences, and institutions with a physical and human legacy and a cultural and nearly spiritual print upon the idea of America- are by no means a comprehensive historical catalogue of the entirety of the American experience. Perhaps one day I will investigate the American legacy in full and chronicle the development and forecast the future of the American nation, state, and idea. But here I will only describe in brief what, exactly, I mean by “America.”

It is important to note that some of these experiences fly in the face of others, and seem incompatible at first thought. All are entirely American, but none is the entirety of America. Together, in their creative tension, they contribute to the great American story and conversation, full, as it is, with contradictions and irregularities. But that’s the beauty of it.

As a temperamental conservative, I view the preservation of what alloyed good exists as the first imperative of statecraft; the reformation and augmentation of it, the second. If any of these ten American experiences were to be lost, our civilization would be all the worse for it. On the other hand, if we limit our historical development to these ten experiences, and fail to develop an eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and beyond, our civilization will fail to thrive beyond its fourth century of existence. The task of American patriots, then, is to cultivate understanding of and reverence for our glorious past; and with that knowledge and the qualities of our national spirit, to build a yet more glorious future.

Here, then, are the experiences that have heretofore defined America.

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Albion’s Seed

Albion’s Seed is the title of a magisterial study on American colonial culture by the historian David Hackett Fischer, and I adopt the name as shorthand for America’s British heritage bequeathed us by the settlers from Great Britain. Anglo traditions of common law, the Protestant influence upon American individualism, philosophy, and civic culture, and the English language itself are all undeniably components of the American identity, and the settler experience of the 17th and 18th centuries- the development of a new world from the seeds of the old- is crucial to the American story. We were Americans long before we fought for independence in the Revolutionary War, and the intermingling of English culture with the American wilderness made us something other than Englishmen. Everything comes from somewhere, and in America we came from Britain- yet grew beyond it.

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Independence

It was the War of Independence, the American Revolution, that shot our nascent nation into the realm of nationhood. The struggle with our British brothers and overlords forged a triumphalism of liberty, of the rugged band of volunteers fighting for an ideal universal to Mankind, that has remained integral to the American self-image ever since. Moreover, the snows of Valley Forge and the fields of Yorktown won for the American people self-determination over their own destiny, an independence to take our place among the nations of the Earth.

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The Constitutional Republic

The War of Independence won but did not secure America’s nationhood and liberty- that work was done by the Framers of the Constitution, who through toil and conflict and reflection and compromise designed the framework and foundations of a constitutional republic- a Constitution of checks and balances, a working federal system of government, energetic and powerful while limited and constrained, capable of addressing the great issues of the day and many days beyond, and a culture of reverence for the laws of the land and for the system of government a sovereign people had designed. They created the American state and system of government, and guaranteed that the constitutional republican tradition rather than any other would be the safeguard of American liberty.

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Democracy

But the Framers and their subsequent heirs, for all their brilliance in designing a Republic and a Constitution, did not have the final say on the animating spirit of the growing nation. That decision was shaped by the statesmen of the antebellum, and especially the Jacksonian democrats, who transformed the abstract sovereignty of the people into the people’s active participation in their own mode of governance. The Jacksonian revolution infused American politics forever after with a common man’s ethos of simplicity, tradition, people’s wisdom, and folk culture, and rearranged the governance system into one of mass democracy of culture and society. Alexis de Tocqueville vividly described this culture in his masterwork, Democracy in America; de Tocqueville’s insights have remained relevant to the present day.

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The American Continent

But it was not only our culture and our system of government that shaped who we were and who we would become- our physical environment had its share of influence, too. Sam Walter Foss, speaking as the American continent, asked for “Men to match my Mountains;” and by all measures, the American people obliged and provided them. Generation after generation of rugged frontiersman, pioneers, engineers, Indian fighters, surveyors, and more pushed ever further westward, bringing the mantle of American civilization with them and transforming the nature of American civilization in the process. By the time we stretched from sea to shining sea, the rugged individualist ethos of the cowboy was more than mere myth- it was a driving reality of innumerable American men and women, accustomed to self-reliance, simplicity, and honor. Additionally, the American people’s relationship with their land gave them an incalculable strategic asset- dominion over the majority of an entire continent, with access to both of the world’s greatest oceans and full of immeasurable stocks of natural resources.

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The Union

Over the course of the antebellum period, the debates over secession and slavery and union raged violently on the streets and plains of America and in the halls of the statehouses and Congress. When the war broke out, its violent prosecution and conclusion guaranteed two critical things- first, that the moral cause of liberty and equality would forever be enshrined in the American civic ethos at the level of the practice of democracy, rather than merely at the level of public discourse and philosophy. And second, that the union, which stretched over the American continent, would be preserved in whole and not in parts, and remain the great power it was, positioned towards even higher greatness in the decades and centuries to come.

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Enterprise

Matching the individualist ethos cultivated by the experience of the West was an entrepreneurial ethos, a great knack for management and organization and innovation, a brilliance and genius rooted in benevolent acquisitiveness that fueled American inventors, investors, and captains of industry. Over the course of several great industrial revolutions, still ongoing, and fueled by ample investment and a healthy business climate, Americans built titanic industries, infrastructure, and cities, harnessed the power of every natural resource conceivable, and invented contraptions and machines that sent men to the moon and conquered atomic science. The great industrial might of America would not have been possible without the spirit of enterprise, nurtured by governments and powered by businesses. The business of America, in at least this sense, has always been business.

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The New Deal

The excesses of industrialization had by the turn of the 20th Century necessitated reforms in America’s governing institutions, and over the course of several decades- the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, and more- Americans built up a federally-sponsored safety net and welfare state, a system of collaborative enterprise and regulation with roots across American history, and a government promising a better quality of life for all its citizens. These institutions, which I collectively call “The New Deal,” represent a preservation and extension of the American Dream, the promise of American life, for the citizens of this great republic. The notion that the government ought to serve its people in all ways possible, and marshal national resources for national ends, is now integral to American political culture.

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The Liberal International Order

After the defeat of Fascism in 1945, the Americans inherited from Britain command of the then-growing liberal international order (a process that had taken some decades.) The prospect of a peaceful, orderly world order, governed by peaceful relations between states and open societies, was a dream the architects of American foreign policy in the postwar period sought first to preserve, and then to expand. It involved stewardship of international institutions, the maintenance of a Navy that could command the seas and keep open the sea lanes of trade, and most importantly the preservation of a peaceful balance of power between great nations of all sorts. American internationalism had its roots going all the way back to the Founding, but the consummation of America’s role as a “city upon a hill,” a “light unto the nations,” took its fullest form when America assumed the mantle of world leadership.

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Civil Rights

The American past has always been marred by grave injustices against those who were not white, even after the Civil War decreed all Americans free. The offenses went against the slaves brought from Africa and their descendants, against the original native inhabitants of the American continent, and against the multitudes of immigrants from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere who migrated to American shores over the course of two centuries. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s enshrined equality before the law of all races into the American identity, and paved the way for a fuller integration of peoples of all backgrounds into the broader American experience. This last experience is still underway, and we have not yet reached an equal and harmonious society yet, where all men and women will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. But thanks to the Civil Rights experience, we are slowly making our way there.

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What Comes Next?

We stand, now, at a dangerous point of American history, with many of these facets of American identity under threat from all sides, and with the American people more often than not forgetting who they are, and being divided against each other by demagogues.

I am of the opinion that to advance as a nation, it is important, first, that we remember who we are. A study of the roots of American identity- and a healthy debate over it- would be useful in that regard.

But we must also press forward with advancing the American identity into new centuries. What will the next great narratives be? In recent decades, there’ve been two possible next great steps, in my opinion.

First, the reform of the New Deal towards a more localized, sustainable, and fundamentally workable system, which President Nixon started with his New Federalism programs and which some scholars have taken up intellectually today. Such a revolution- a New New Federalism, fueled by the power of the Information Revolution- could transform American governance at the same level that the Progressive Era and New Deal did.

Another great quest with historic antecedents is the conquest of space- the rejuvenation of the American space program and the exploration and colonization of other worlds beyond the Moon. Another great period of exploration can bring out the greatest facets of the existing American character and transform them into something new.

Whatever we choose, we must begin moving soon. History will not wait.

Conclusion

I must note, before I close, that all of these facets of American identity have played an important role in shaping the American experience, and should any be lost, it would fundamentally change the American legacy in a worse way than the positive addition of new experiences would.

All of these ten experiences and assets- a fundamentally Anglo cultural and philosophical heritage, political independence and liberty, a working constitutional and republican system of government, a democratic political culture, the resources and character of a great continent, an unbreakable union, the innovative and industrial power of our system of free enterprise, our modern social contract through the New Deal, a liberal international order, and basic fundamental rights and equality for all citizens of all races- these are the things our statesmen and stateswomen must preserve, defend, reform, and expand. And they must add onto these new experiences- in my opinion, we must reform the institutions of governance for the 21st Century, and expand our civilization beyond the stars. All of these collectively are what I speak of when I speak of America the idea, America the nation, America the state, America the experience.

The chroniclers, storytellers, and promoters of the American legacy have a twofold task, then- first, to serve as bards to the public, singing the glory of the past, reminding Americans of who they are; and second, as prophets of the future, sketching the glorious things to be and dreaming up the future greatness of the American nation. I hope to someday turn to that great task- to write a great cultural, political, and intellectual history of the American experiment- but for now I must direct my studies and efforts elsewhere.

Americans, remember who you have been, who you are, and who you will be.

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