Sandoz – Americanism: The Question of Community in Politics
Eric Voegelin Institute, Louisiana State University
The Question of Community in Politics
National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
What Is An American?
April 30, 2005
© Ellis Sandoz 2005
All Rights Reserved
Convention draft not to be quoted without specific permission.
Many kinds of answers might be given
the topic assigned to this panelñ”Culture and Creed in the Formation of
Americans” All of them would have
inadequacies because they would be partial and selective.
My colleagues and I will spend the next hour offering our perspectives on
the subject by saying what each of us thinks most urgently can briefly be said
to clarify it, and then open the discussion to our distinguished audience to
correct our mistakes and deficiencies and to fill in the gaps.
Let me begin with the words on the subject from an acknowledged expert,
Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote this a bit over a century ago:
is one quality which we must bring to the solution of every problem,- that is,
an intense and fervid Americanism. We shall never be successful over the dangers
that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, nor reach the lofty
ideal which the founders and preservers of our mighty Federal Republic have set
before us, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose,
keenly alive to the responsibility implied in the very name of American, and
proud beyond measure of the glorious privilege of bearing it. (1894)[i]
I shall suggest that it is, indeed, Americanism
that most concisely symbolizes who we are and shall understand that term as
designating the “common sense” of the country’s Founding generationñits homonoia
(like-mindedness) in Aristotle’s usage, or senso
commune in Vico’s terminology. This
is the way Thomas Jefferson and John Adams seem to have understood the term when
they coined it at the end of the 18th century.
This understanding therefore appeals both to the old and new
science of politics as denoting a complex matter of fundamental importance.
Once the meaning has been clarified a bit, I shall try by implication at
least to indicate how to meet some of the challenges we face in preserving and
defending the convictions and the way of life historically built on Americanism.
In this as in so much else Plato showed the way in the Laws
when he characterized the process of preserving a just regime as mache
athanatos (an undying struggle), a process our American forebears translated
by the defiant phrase: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
The heart of the matter, and its most delicate aspect, is to connect
Americanism with the biblical faith of Americans as the chief source of its
strength and enduring resilienceñ and of its frequent arousal of anti-American
sentiments from ideologues of every stripe, those self-anointed “elites” at
home and abroad who readily enlighten
and denigrate us at every waking moment on every conceivable subject.
Burke identified the basis of the American consensus in the dissenting
branch of Protestantism. Publius identified Providence’s gift of “one united
people” “speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached
to the same principles of government”(Federalist
No. 2). Tocqueville (who never lies) stressed
one must never forget that religion gave birth to America, and that American
Christianity has kept a strong hold over the minds of the people, not merely as
a philosophy examined and accepted, but as “an established and irresistible
fact which no one seeks to attack or defend.”[ii]
Not to be thought merely old-hat ideas, Samuel Huntington just last year
challenged Americans to “recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture,
traditions, and values that… have been the source of their liberty, unity,
power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force for good in the world.”[iii]
He forecast that, unlike the 20th which was defined by
contending ideologies, the 21st will be a century
marked by the “revenge of God” (prematurely certified dead, in fact
murdered, by 19th century luminaries), i.e. by the resurgence of
religions, with culture and ethnicity replacing ideology as the central terms of
was a Bible-based culture for 300 years, Trevelyan observed, finding this
stupendous religious movement unlike anything in the annals since St. Augustine.
What are the consequences for Americanism?
A great many of which I mention only two here: first,
a theory of human being as created
imago Dei, each person imperfect and sinful, yet graced with the
defining unique capacity of communion with his Creator as this is experientially
apperceived in the New Birth: an inward experience and assurance
of election, a process of salvation that runs from conversion and
justification, toward sanctification in imitation of Christña spiritual
movement of maturation that runs from “ruin to recovery” of the divine image
powerfully argued, for instance, in the soteriology of Isaac Watts and John
Wesley during the 18th century revival we call the Great Awakening.
Second, there is a pervasive understanding of the course of human events
as Providentially guided, even as it is effected by human agents, i.e., by
individuals exercising dominion through reason and volition over the creation as
citizens no less than as pilgrims living in collaborative faith-grace
partnership with God. In both
respects the In-between reality of time and history is consciously reaffirmed,
vitally experienced as tensionally structured by the competing pulls of worldly
immanent and transcendent divine reality.
Thus, Lincoln’s “almost chosen people” more often than not implies
humility rather than hubris, as it has played out in American public affairs.
Jingoism and imperialism are excesses, deformationsñeven tinging
current policy debatesñof this “choseness,” rather than optimal
expressions of it. The sentiment of feeling
is an expression of trembling assurance,
but also one of a constant supplication for divine favor akin to that
symbolized in the parable of the Prodigal Son who rejects, strays, and returns
seeking mercy in a dynamic of faith experienced in rebellious apostasy,
repentance, forgiveness, and renewed communion familiar in the prophetic
writings of the Old Testament a well as in the Gospels (cf. Luke 15 with its
echo of Psalm 51.)
The keen awareness of this dynamic in the consciousness of
the American community at the time of the Founding is reflected in many sources,
but perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in the sixteen or more resolutions of
the Continental Congress asking for national days of prayer, humiliation,
repentance, and thanksgiving at various points during the Revolutionñand
intermittently proclaimed thereafter in our history as well. (Cf. my A
Government of Laws, chap. 5). Such
a day was proclaimed, it may be recalled, as the very first act of President
George W. Bush’s presidency in January 2001.
The Declaration of Independence is a primary text for any understanding
of Americanism and a concise, creedal statement of its meaning.
But to be rightly understood it must be placed in the Christian context
just limned. The evocation of transcendent divine Being in the
Creator-creaturely relationship and the sense of Providential governance of
human affairs beyond any sectarian divisions are authoritatively communicated
therein, as is also an anthropology hinting of man as imago
Dei and thereby indelibly stamped with Liberty, expressed
in the rhetorical mode of inalienable rights reflective of the
Creator’s salient attributes. The
“Lockean” liberal political theory therein advanced thus ontologically foots
on this anthropology as demanding consent for legitimacy of laws and of
government itself, whose powers are thus inherently limited and whose cardinal
purpose is salus populi:
to serve its citizenry and not they it.
The Declaration expressed the Whig consensus of Americans at
the time, Jefferson later claimed.
Jefferson and Adams meant all of this when they coined the term Americanism
as early as 1797. But they also
meant the republicanism nurtured in Western political philosophy by the
most famous writings of our civilization, from the Israelite republic of seventy
Elders (Numbers 11 and Deuteronomy 16, revived by James Harrington and Tom
Paine), to Aristotle’s “mixed” regime and rule of law, to Aquinas whom
Lord Acton thought the “first
Whig,” to the Commonwealthmen of the English 17th century,
especially John Milton and Algernon Sidney whose language is soaked in biblical
and classical understanding. From
Richard Hooker by way of Locke their Americanism embraced the great principle
that “Laws they are not which public approbation hath not made so,” an
insistence that gave the American Revolution its motto, if it had one.
The Constitution and laws of the land were intended, when time came, to
inculcate republican virtues and customs into the minds and hearts of the
citizenry and make them the habitual educational foundation of civic
consciousness, thereby overtime forming uniquely American character.
We may also mention that James Madison, as part of his own education,
stayed on an extra term at the College of New Jersey to study Hebrew with John
Witherspoon, so as to read the Old Testament in the original as he did the New
Testament in koine Greek. This
was the golden age of the classics in America, and the educated generation knew
the Bible inside out and the Greek and Latin (especially “Tully”) classics
as second nature.
What emerges if we take the Founding moment as paradigmatic for our
purposes is a body of writing and thought in which faith in divine governance in
human affairs (to remember Benjamin Franklin in the Philadelphia Convention) is
buoyed by a sense of history that teeters uneasily and expectantly on the edge
of possible eschatological fulfillment through the Parousia, a tenuous
“enthusiasm” kept in check by the obscurity of divine mysteries, one
tempered by the rational watchful waiting that marks the human condition with
uncertainty no less than expectancy, with the end to come like a thief in the
night (Olivet discourse, esp. Matt. 24:31-46). This Scripturally grounded common
sense rationality Franklin’s Poor Richard captured in the maxim:
“Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die
The new epoch sensed to be possibly dawning was symbolized on the reverse
of the Great Seal of the United States in the slogans “The year of our
daringñ1776" and “Novus ordo seclorumñThe new Order of the Ages,”
with the Eye of Providence presiding over an unfinished pyramid.
Not my will but Thine
be done, the Prayer goes. No
more than any other positive human achievement might any ecumenic kingdom ever
be merely man’s affair. But like
every other great truth, this delicate
matter too can be vulgarized and deformed by wilful sophistry.
The fifth great strand of Americanism along with Bible, republicanism,
so-called Lockean liberalism, and the classics is common law
tradition of law in practice, word, and experience mightily evoked the great
Tree of Liberty, the ancient constitution, Magna Carta, the Petition of Right,
Sir John Fortescue’s Lancastrian constitution as revived two centuries later
by Sir Edward Coke, whose crabbed Institutes became the reigning textbook
for America’s lawyers, as Jefferson attested.
With it came a sturdy and intricate historical jurisprudence to augment
the jurisprudence of divine and Stoic natural law that played such a key role in
cogently justifying departure from the realm of England.
When in old age Adams and Jefferson finally patched up their differences
and wrote the great exchange of letters we have from them, Adams neatly
identified the sources of homonoia or unity of mind and spirit
(Americanism) that carried the day for the Good Old Cause as Whig Liberty and
Christianity. He fervently affirmed (in 1813) to his old comrade of battles now
long pastñhis fellow “Argonaut,” as he called Jefferson: “Now I will
avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of
Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the existence and attributes of
God, and those Principles of Liberty are as unalterable as human Nature and our
terrestrial, mundane System.”
Such Americanismña highly differentiated complex of vital beliefs
deeply held, forming the infrastructure of rational politics, adapting and
augmenting as exigency demandsñhas sustained the nation into the present.
Perhaps it still remains alive and well in the heartland despite all social
amnesia, the educational depredations of ideologues and postmodernists, and the
insidious deculturation wreaked by mendacity, neglect, and blissful ignorance.
It has certainly structured resolve and from time to time been strengthened in
moments of crisis and national peril, by decisions to fight for what the United
States took to be right and in the national interestñmost lately our just
wars, both hot and cold, against the great tyrannies of the 20th
century, and the present war against terrorism.
And it inspired by its potent universalism the French Revolution and both
abolitionism and the civil rights revolution in this country.
Of course, especially by the steady affirmation as cardinal truth of
man’s tension toward the abiding divine Ground beyond nature and beyond all
temporal reality, it has enraged the alienated
and enlightened intellectuals who prefer their own trendy reductionist
ideologies, favorite corrupting modern Gnostic variants of secularism. Such
superior persons derisively sneer at the bucolic quaintness of those (including
our Founders, such notable patriots as Teddy Roosevelt, and most of the rest of
us) who are unable to understandñas they well doñthat all things are
permitted, that might is right, and that the highest being for man is man
himself. Throw in a dash of envy
for material success, economic and political preeminence, and you have a recipe
for being hated by voluble “elites” far and wide, at home and abroadñmuch
to the bewilderment of ordinary folk and normal people.
“Anti-Americanism is at base a totalizing, if not a totalitarian,
vision,” one acute French observer explains, and he continues: “The peculiar
blindness of fanaticism can be recognized in the way it seizes on a certain
behavior of the hated object and sweepingly condemns it, only to condemn with
equal fervor the opposite behavior shortly afterñor even simultaneously….
According to this vision…Americans can do nothing but speak
idiocies, make blunders, commit crimes; and they are answerable for all the
setbacks, all the injustices and all the sufferings of the rest of humanity.”[vi]
But that, it seems, may be a subject for another occasion.
Just a little red meat for you before I close!
First published in
The Forum Magazine (April 1894) and reprinted in The
Works of Theodore Roosevelt (National Edition), 20 vols. (New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926):13, p.15.
Citation kindly provided by Professor Gregory Russell.
de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,
trans. George Lawrence, ed J. P. Mayer (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday,
Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We?
The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon
&Schuster, 2004), xvii.
“Elect through the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification
of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus
Christ….” (1 Pet. 1:2). See
the discussion in Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “The Religious Dimensions of
American Aspirations,” in An Almost
Chosen People: The Moral Aspirations of Americans, ed. Walter Nicgorski
and Ronald Weber (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 39-49
Jean-FranÁois Revel, Anti-Americanism,
trans. Diarmid Cammell (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 143.