The Dark Night of the American Soul

"I see what you are not making, oh, what you are so vividly not!"

~ William James, 1905

"It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it."

~ Mark Twain, Pudd'n'head Wilson

"I used to sit at the foot of Old Glory and awake in the dawn's early light, but much to my surprise, when I opened my eyes, I was a victim of the great compromise."

~ John Prine, 1972


Naturally, I jest. There is no dark night of the American soul, certainly none of which very many Americans are aware. Americans almost never brood. Americans seldom think deeply about the nature of things. No indeed, we are innocent; born that way, we deserve no less than to be recognized by everyone, everywhere, as the great exception to the normal lot of mankind. Our leaders in particular embody — or at least wield – this primordial innocence.

They have their reasons.

Unhappily they get a lot of help from the American public. It begins to seem a case of toxic leaders and infected masses, but if the masses are infected, it is with a set of notions that can rightly boast of a long genealogy. These u201CAmericanu201D ideas turn out, on further inquiry, to stem in large measure from the heritage of Greater New England, with all the problems implied in such a proposition.

What we have to contend with is a set of long-standing assumptions that drive Americans into the arms of leaders able to wield the political language in question. Once in a while, the leaders themselves believe in these ideas. So old are these ideas, so automatic the response to them, that Americans give the appearance of unthinking assent, the minute any of them are put on the table.

Thus, for example, to say u201Cthat's historyu201D is, in the American idiom, to say that something is gone, overthrown, or unworthy of heed. It is last year's rock star, yesterday's paper. Someone once commented that Americans think of history as a series of bad things that happen to other people. With little knowledge of history and geography, Americans are always u201Csurprisedu201D by events in the wider world; they are surprised to learn that Albanians are not from Albany or that our u201Cway of lifeu201D is not everywhere admired or coveted.

They have just been u201Csurprisedu201D about looting in Iraq, and they will doubtless be further surprised as their illusions – or at least their leaders' proclaimed illusions – run up against reality in half a world away from their home.

Naturally enough, President Bush has been giving expression to the typical American view of history in his recent pronouncements.

America means goodies, material wealth, one TV set per room, and there is nothing especially wrong with that. That u201Cmaterialismu201D narrowly construed, or u201Ccapitalismu201D as such, is behind the ongoing malaise in American life is quite wrong. Conservative historian John Lukacs makes the interesting point that u201Cit is not the American heart which is materialist. It is the American mind…. Americans only think in materialist terms. But this is very important, because, by so thinking, they become materialistic.u201D[1] Instead, for various reasons, American leaders allied to particular political and material interests stand ready to exploit this — and other — acquired habits of the American mind.

Those ideas and their exploitation are the burden of this essay.


Just now, every last defect of the American character is on display in our leaders' speeches, in our media, and in the responses of the general public. These include mawkish sentimentality, corrosive innocence, intellectual insularity, and technical-scientific know-it-all-hood combined with a striking ethical, historical, and sociological empty-headedness.

Can-do, know-how, u201Cfailure is not an option,u201D shock and horror that anyone might knowingly and willingly refuse to live as we do. The surprise, shock, and horror apparently give way rather quickly to Shock and Awe, to punish those who reject our u201Cway of life.u201D

Americans are content, for the most part, with a purely technical competence combined with an unconscious and genial Philistinism, neither of which ever asks to know in any serious manner the purposes to which technique is to be put. This is not all bad, and would not constitute a threat to the world, or indeed, to ourselves, if our leaders could leave anything alone for a few minutes at a time. Unfortunately, our leaders have had Great Ambitions for a long time, even if the ambitions of the current leaders surpass all belief.

Amaury de Riencourt wrote in 1957, that Americans are the pragmatic, state-building, road-building, law-giving Romans, relative to the creative, fractious, and difficult Europeans, who are the Greeks in this tragedy or farce.[2] Unlike the Romans, however, we manage to combine our practical-technical outlook with a set of unworldly obsessions and abstractions, which we project onto the world.

Much of this, again, is built into the culture, but might, nonetheless, not be a great problem, were it not that US leaders exploit and manipulate certain inbred habits of American thought in order to achieve sundry ends — ends to which even the voters might object if they could be bothered to look into them.


Essential background to American habits of though was British insularity, which, across the water, blossomed into u201CAmerican Exceptionalismu201D – the notion that America is by right, or happy accident, exempt from most trials to which the rest of humanity is heir. Alongside insularity came the Black Legend — the idea that nothing good had, or ever could, come out of Iberian Catholic culture. This theme was especially evident, once New Englanders took up writing the history of the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic.

This already gave the northeastern Anglophones a built-in villain in their historical drama, though they added others closer to home soon enough.

What would become a central theme of American history was found in the Puritan form of English Protestantism that prevailed in New England. From the Puritan u201Cmissionu201D stems the US World Mission. Much of the ideological fervor of the American Revolution resulted from a crossing of Puritan ideas with republican theory.[3] Ever after, sundry changing forms of postmillennialist, premillennialist, and (very generally) u201Cpietistu201D theology played a key role in American cultural and political history.

While matters were a bit complicated on the theological side,[4] it is sufficient for present purposes to know that the post-Puritan ideas coming out of New England centered on such notions as the Kingdom of God on Earth, reforms to bring that about, and an American (i.e., New England) mission to spread the resulting system to the wider world. The late Murray Rothbard wrote as follows of the u201Cnewu201D pietism of the early 19th century: u201CIn the North, especially in Yankee areas, the form of the new Protestantism was very different [from that found in the South]. It was aggressively evangelical and postmillennialist, that is, it became each believer's sacred duty to devote his energies to trying to establish a Kingdom of God on Earth, to establishing the perfect society in America and eventually the world, to stamp out sin and u2018make America holy,' as essential preparation for the eventual Second Advent of Jesus Christ.u201D

The carriers of these ideas were Yankees, that is, u201Can ethnocultural group descending from the original Puritans of Massachusetts, and who, beginning in rural New England, moved westward and settled upstate New York (u2018the Burned-Over District'), northern Ohio, northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and neighboring areas. As early as the Puritan days, the Yankees were eager to coerce themselves and their neighbors; the first American public schools were set up in New England to inculcate obedience and civic virtue in their charges.u201D[5]

Professor William G. McLoughlin, who basically approves of the havoc pietism has played with American history, admits that u201Cit would probably be fair to say that because of its intense pietism America has produced more hypocrisy per square soul than almost any other civilization in Christendom.u201D[6]

The radical historian William Appleman Williams, who saw himself as a Tory or Christian Socialist, says of the original Puritans: u201CDevoted to the ideal of a corporate community guided by a strong moral sense, they developed a great talent for misinterpreting any opposition. From the outset, for example, they were prone to view the Indians as agents of the Devil, waiting to test their convictions…. But that definition externalized Evil, thus making it an object to be overpowered rather than an internal, human weakness to be contained and transformed…. This propensity to place Evil outside their system not only distorted the Puritans' own doctrine, it inclined them toward a solution which involved the extension of their system over others.u201D[7]

These mental habits carried over into the less-and-less orthodox theology of the Puritans' successors; and their overall tenor began to resemble that of latter-day US foreign policy.

I have already noted the early assimilation of republicanism to millennialism during our Revolution.[8] Fairly soon, republicanism, wrongly understood, stripped of its one or two real insights, and loosely assimilated to Protestant millennialism, became the dominant political ideology. In a move already anticipated by James Harrington in 1656, James Madison stood the republican theorem about the geographical limits of limited government on its head. He argued that through the magic of geographical expansion, which would u201Cdiluteu201D the evils of u201Cfaction,u201D far-seeing statesmen could long postpone the institutional crisis thought to be built into republican forms of government.[9]

This republican u201Crevisionismu201D was widely popular and widely accepted. The growing popular egalitarianism attached to American republicanism engendered a degree of social leveling, conformism, and petty mental tyranny.[10] u201CJacksonian democracy,u201D with its sundry internal contradictions and tendencies, defined the so-called Middle Period of American history.

One suggestive development was the historical writing of George Bancroft, a Jacksonian Democrat who brought German idealism into the mixture. Revising the developmental trajectory of G. W. F. Hegel, who held that the Prussian monarchy was history's goal, Bancroft set American republicanism, or democracy, in its place. This adjustment was, in a way, a fair u201Cfit,u201D given German idealism's origins in German pietist Protestantism.

Unsurprisingly, this American historicism entailed permanent union and democratic nationalism. Paul Gottfried, conservative historian of political thought, comments: u201COne does not have to strain to find here a Jacobin imagination hidden behind Hegelian language. A consolidated American national government, a powerful executive representing the popular will, and a global civilizing mission are the visionary expectations that one can read into Bancroft's patriotic scholarship.u201D[11]

All this Hegelian doctrine about the unfolding of history's goals helped reinforce the expansionist logic built into American republicanism, a logic running on parallel tracks with millennialist projects. Thus in June 1852, the United States Democratic Review editorialized at length (and with no religious imagery) on the American mission to redeem the world. Crying up a u201Cmonarchical plot against republicanism [which] has made great strides,u201D the writer deplored American failure to intervene in the European revolutions of 1848.

We had failed to support our natural ally, u201CFrance, the perpetual terror of all tyrants.u201D But Americans had the right, and ought, to u201Cvolunteer on the side of libertyu201D; all of them u201Care, or should be republican propagandists.u201D America, after all, was a state of mind, a set of propositions (so to speak). Falling just short of today's universal proposition, the writer observed that anyone u201Ccan become an American by emigration from any land but Africa, if he desire.u201D

The proper duty of America was to promote u201Cuniversal republicanism.u201D Once the millions of German, Irish, and other recent immigrants realized the glory of this project, their votes would decide the presidency. The winning candidate of the future would be u201Cthe leader who avows the doctrine of intervention in the next European convulsion.u201D[12]

Arising from within this aggressive version of republicanism was a pervasive egalitarianism, subject (at the time) only to the racial exception made by the Democratic Review. Conservative historian John Lukacs underscores the longevity of this theme thusly: u201Csocial democracy as much as political democracy… equality as much or perhaps even more than liberty, had been part and parcel of the American national development long before this century. Beginning with the Puritans, but not again exclusively attributable to their influence, a certain extent of social conformity has been characteristic of American life and society throughout. In the United States, therefore, we may speak of u2018the socialization of souls' as a powerful tendency that long preceded the actual establishment of the Welfare State. It was but strengthened and extended by the arrival of millions of homeless immigrants and, most of all, by the standardization of communications and possessions, of words and habits of life, brought about by industry, technology, and mass production.u201D[13]

Of course rapid expansion through time and space to accommodate these striving masses effectively falsified Madison's theorem and brought about the very crisis it was supposed to postpone. But the idea retained its popularity. Historian Dwight G. Anderson writes that, u201Cas an indication of how closely related territorial expansion was to avoidance of constitutional crisis, many Northerners believed, even after secession occurred, that the Union could be restored on the basis of Manifest Destiny.u201D[14]

Historian Major L. Wilson argues that Southerners preferred expansion through space (as seen in Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase), while Yankees preferred expansion through time, and thereby laid claim on the Future, radiant or otherwise.[15] Obviously, the latter outfit had greater, indeed unlimited, ambitions and claims on the world.

As Williams sees it, Yankee abolitionists drew on their theology in defining Southern slavery as a u201Csinu201D rather than the object of practical reform. At the same time they took from American republicanism the assumption that any u201Csystemu201D must expand or die. Combining these two notions, they undertook u201Ccontainmentu201D of the South. Southerners, who also accepted the expansionist axiom, chose to form their own confederacy rather than be contained.[16]

Williams does not hide his conviction that containment of the South was a perfect preview of the rhetoric of the Cold War and the reasoning behind it. It is no accident that in 1949, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one of the fence-riders of Cold War liberalism, wrote an essay attacking historians who regretted the war of 1861–1865 and commending the use of armed force to settle moral confrontations.[17] For many American policy makers and thinkers, it seems, the struggle is always the same, and war, or actions leading to war, the best moral shortcut.

Another idea with a real future ahead of it was that of the Universal American, as expressed by Reverend Samuel Harris of Maine in 1861:

u201CIt is the embodiment of our great American idea into our institutions which constitutes us as a nation. This is indeed the Saviour’s teaching; loosely interpreted and applied, that a man is not a Jew because he is descended from Abraham, but only because, whatever his descent, he has the faith of Abraham. He who is not in sympathy with the American idea that breathes in our political institutions, is an alien unworthy to bear the name of American citizen. But… everyone who seeks the protection of our government, intelligently sympathizing with its idea and spirit, he is an American, a native ‘to the manor born,’ by a new political birth, and entitled in due form of law to become a citizen.u201D[18]

Americans were now Americans by creed, and Southerners, by failing to agree with the Reverend Harris had become u201Caliensu201D on their own soil; they had to be blockaded, shelled, and finally, u201Creconstructed.u201D


The war of 1861–1865 unleashed the whole witches' brew of sacralized politics carried on by force. Conservative historian Otto Scott describes the radical abolitionists' contribution as u201Cthe idea that killing innocent people is no crime in an effort to achieve a greater good. The new religion had started with arguments against such relatively harmless sins as smoking and drinking, had then grown to crusades denouncing and forbidding even commerce with persons whose morals were held to be invidious; it had expanded into antislavery as the answer to every ill of humanity; and it had finally come to full flower in the belief that killing anyone — innocent or guilty — was an act of righteousness for a new morality.u201D[19]

The war had numerous consequences, some of which became heavy mortgages against the future. The eminent historian Francis Butler Simkins wrote in 1955, the failure of Southern separatism left us with a culture marked by u201Ca fanatical nationalism, which leaves little room for sectional variations, a faith in Darwinian progress which leaves no room for static contentment, and a faith in the American dream of human equality which leaves little room for one person to get ahead of another except in making money.u201D[20]

The war greatly speeded up the progress of state-worship in America. Somehow the fact that hundreds of thousands had died u201Cpreservingu201D the Union was taken to prove that the federal government had saved the people. The lesson of the war years seemed to be that too much liberty and too much decentalization had u201Ccausedu201D the war; accordingly, Americans must now affirm the unknowable depths of federal u201Csovereigntyu201D forever after.

The war gave a tremendous boost to those thinkers interested in re-tooling American political life and institutions with the help of various managerial and state-exalting theories imported from Europe. The new syntheses, which were, if anything, worse than Transcendentalism, became the foundations of American political science and sociology. One of the advanced thinkers was Francis Lieber, a German immigrant and legal advisor to Lincoln's War Department, who wrote that, u201Cthe state stands incalculably above the individual, is worthy of every sacrifice, of life, of wife and children, for it is the society of societies, the sacred union by which the creator leads man to civilization, the bond, the pacifier, the humanizer, of men, the protector of all undertakings in which and through which the individual has received its character, and which is the staff and shield of society.u201D[21]

At the same time, America – that is, the North – acquired what Robert Penn Warren described as a Treasury of Virtue as a result of saving the union and emancipating the slaves.[22] This bottomless Treasury of Virtue reinforced the American tendencies toward self-worship (= worship of an idealized collective self) and anti-institutionalism that were part and parcel of the u201CAmerican religionu201D with its only slightly hidden Gnostic assumption that individual souls were coeval with God and could communicate with Him directly through right thinking.[23]

It is worth adding that, in real-world applications, the American u201Canti-institutionalismu201D just mentioned has always targeted lesser jurisdictions and intermediate bodies standing in the way of Progress, and has licensed expansion of national institutions. The rhetoric currently employed by the United States with regard to sundry u201Crogueu201D states is quite interesting in this respect. The language in use might embarrass the wildest 17th-century antinominian Ranter or the craziest 19th-century Russian nihilist, but with characteristic American optimism, US spokesmen cannot imagine that these rhetorical devices will ever come back to haunt them.

State-funded u201Cpublicu201D education – basically a New England project – in its various historical declensions has tended to make the tendencies under discussion universal in the United States, whether in the form of unofficial Protestant u201Ccivic religionu201D or, later, in an entirely official and de-Christianized form. The Supreme Court decision on school prayer marks the transition. Certainly, the pessimistic planter in Ride With the Devil was right to see the seeds of Northern victory in the fact that the Yankees in Lawrence, Kansas, put up their schoolhouse first; for mastery over time required no less.

The practical results of American education are not above criticism. Edward P. Lawton, a Southerner and retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, wrote in 1963: u201COne of the weaknesses of American higher education, and of our educational system in general, is that comparative judgments in the light of outside standards are so seldom made. This may well be the gravest defect in our intellectual life; that our society has evolved since independence virtually unaffected by the experience of other advanced peoples. Except in the arts and sciences we have disliked measuring our institutions and achievements by alien standards.u201D[24]

After the bloody war of 1861–1865, a secularization of postmillennialist Protestantism set in. This process yielded among other things such ambivalent figures as Henry Adams, descendant of two presidents and son of Lincoln's Minister to Britain during the war. In his intellectual autobiography, Adams said of Darwinism: u201CUnbroken Evolution under uniform conditions pleased everyone — except curates and bishops; it was the very best substitute for religion; a safe, conservative, practical, thoroughly Common-Law deity. Such a working system for the universe suited a young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity on people who objected to it; the idea was only too seductive in its perfections; it had the charm of art. Unity and Uniformity were the whole motive of philosophy, and if Darwin, like a true Englishman, preferred to back into it — to reach God a posteriori — rather than start from it, like Spinoza, the difference of method taught only the moral that the best way of reaching unity was to unite. Any road was good that arrived.u201D[25]

Such are the twists and turns of the New England mind. In a book dedicated to praising later manifestations of that mindset, Louis Menand writes that for Adams, u201CThe war was just part of the struggle for existence, a means by which the species moved ahead.u201D[26] From another angle, it might be said that the war was a perfect example of a lasting American confusion between ends and means. A union entered upon as a means to practical, bounded ends — peace, trade, prosperity — had become an end itself and a metaphysical proposition to which almost anything else could rightly be sacrificed.[27]

The war became a central feature of Americans' collective self-image, a founding myth able to displace the Revolution itself as a source of inspiration, precedent, and models for the future. This was essential, if Americans were to avoid learning some less welcome lessons from the struggle. As Lawton writes:

u201CTo still any nagging doubts they had to build up their Dream, to idealize still more the wonder of the Union, to bring God more and more into it, to exaggerate all national virtues and minimize the realities that marked their failures. This has gone on increasingly since 1861, and each of our wars has speeded up the process.u201D[28]

Williams says of the war and its resulting cult, that beneath Americans' u201Cpersistent involvementu201D with the Civil War u201Cis the realization that the war undercuts the popular mythology that America is unique. Only a nation that avoided such a conflict could make a serious claim to being fundamentally different. In accordance with the logic and psychology of myth, therefore, it has become necessary to turn the war into something so different, strange, and mystic, that it could have happened only to the chosen people.u201D[29]

After the failure of the Southern cause there were few serious attempts — although the paradoxical case of Utah comes to mind — to get out from under the looming American nightmare.

By the end of the 19th century American thinkers like Frederick Jackson Turner and politicians like President William McKinley had reflected further on the axiom of republican expansion and the role of the frontier. The result was a redefinition of the field of American commercial and reforming activity. The substitution of foreign markets for the continental frontier seemed the answer and recapitulated the longstanding New England trader's goal of engrossing the fabled China Market.[30]

This was not without peril. As Williams puts it: u201CGiven this expansionist theory of prosperity and history, the activities of foreign nations were interpreted almost wholly as events which denied the United States the opportunity for its vital expansion. A different explanation of the nation's difficulties would have produced a different estimate of foreign actions, for not one of these countries actually threatened the United States.u201D[31]

But we are getting ahead of our story, and need to look at some other pieces in the American puzzle.


Foreigners, and some Americans, long remarked an undercurrent of unrest, discontent, and dissatisfaction right on the surface of American life. This had perhaps some relation to the practical fact of a seemingly unlimited frontier of contiguous land; that, in turn, flowed from and strengthened the expansionist axiom of American republicanism. This brings us to geographical mobility in American life.

Historian George W. Pierson writes that u201Ceven before the Erie Canal had been dug or the Mississippi had been reached Europeans were commenting on a psychology that owed much to movement: on our friendliness and hospitality, our casual informality and lack of deference, our inquisitiveness and our helpfulness with strangers. Already our feverish restlessness and activity, our boastfulness and psychological insecurity, our mental and emotional instability were a familiar story, noticed by foreigners, commented upon by many.u201D A Swedish visitor, Klinkowstrm, amazedly asked, u201CWhat is it that Americans will not try?u201D[32]

(A short answer might include restraint, prudence, the Golden Mean, and a few other things, but no matter.)

Certainly, the American's fabled option of u201Cstarting overu201D and u201Creinventingu201D himself by running off to an ever-receding frontier perhaps reinforced a sense of u201Cnewnessu201D and a cult of youth. Some observers thought the mobility of American life favored brittle personalities, gullibility alongside lack of trust, naively sincere religious enthusiasts beside Herman Melville's Confidence Man.

Somewhere along the line, the American Dream, centering on material wealth and on surpassing the achievements of one's parents, set in. Edward Lawton describes some consequences:

u201CThe American Dream helped to produce nationalism, and the latter intensified the Dream. Americans who believe in the Dream — and they may be a majority — think that it is a God-inspired phenomenon, unique in history. Unless they have some countervailing religious faith the Dream is likely to be the most idealistic set of beliefs that they have, touching their deepest spiritual chords and arousing their noblest resonses. If pressed for a definition of the Dream most Americans would include such concepts as Liberty, Freedom, Democracy, as well as equal justice and opportunity for all. The latter have come to mean not only legal but also social and economic non-discrimination against disparate racial, religious and other elements.u201D

Lawton saw the Dream as especially the creed of u201Cpoverty-stricken immigrants from Europe,u201D who found American life such an improvement over conditions in the native lands that u201CAmerica really came near to being the Promised Land of their hopes.u201D Associated with u201Crapid accumulation of wealth,u201D the Dream u201Calso strengthened nationalism and directed it along imperialist lines. Out of this has come the great-power psychology in which I see so little virtue. To derive satisfaction from belonging to the u2018greatest,' u2018strongest' and u2018richest' nation on earth may seem natural to most Americans; but wherein lies any merit unless the word u2018greatest' actually — and not just rhetorically — connotes superior worth? It should be more gratifying to belong to a small country that lives up to high ideals than to a great power that does not.u201D

Lawton added that the American Dream was essentially a Northern, rather than a Southern phenomenon.[33] It may be unfair to make light of immigrants' aspirations, but it seems reasonable to say that the immigrants' notion of the perfect life was not necessarily very extensive. (u201CIn America, Secret Police only kick your door in once a month. It was so much worse in Ruritania.u201D)

Naturally, there has been change over time, as far as American national character is concerned. De Riencourt observes: u201CThe Pilgrim and Founding Fathers were far more individualized than present-day Americans, who live in a world of compulsory gregariousness and mass suggestion, whose ideal is normalcy and whose essential characteristic is like-mindedness. Contemporary Americans display a profound hostility toward human differentiation and deny the very existence of differences in human values. It was only on such a basis that democratic equality was made possible. Imbued with a statistical mentality, the Americans were gradually driven to view quantity as a symbol of quality because they lost the ability to differentiate between them.u201D[34]

Such an outlook, writes John Lukacs, has yielded u201Ca certain unrealistic American habit of reasoning and rhetoric, a tendency to substitute vocabulary for thought,u201D related in turn to u201Cthe transformation of a previously sparse, thrifty, and pragmatic people at the expense of common sense, of plain speaking, and of the recognition of the obvious.u201D[35] Wittingly or not, the historian of American thought, Merle Curti, put his finger on a key relationship in 1953, when he noted that progressive intellectuals of the early 20th century, armed with statistical correlations, u201Crevolutionized the older rational social studies by imbuing them with both empiricism and faith.u201D[36]

Empiricism and faith: the great polarity in the American mind, the yawning chasm between Grand Theory and Abstracted Empiricism was remarked by writers as different from each other as Murray Rothbard and C. Wright Mills. Unfortunately, the empiricism hasn't always worked very well, above all in the social sciences, and the faith remains what it always was, a speculative, secularized millennialism. But to give some order to these matters, we must now turn to the applied, practical side of American life — a realm where Americans very often set the world's standards.


We may begin with a nod toward the much-advertised Anglo-American u201Cempiricism,u201D a habit of mind associated with Sir Francis Bacon. From this standpoint we explain reality wholly in terms of physical objects that we know through our senses.[37] The Southern conservative Richard M. Weaver finds the origins of this typically Anglo-Saxon outlook in late-medieval nominalism: u201CThe practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.u201D[38]

Americans inherited empiricist leanings along with their British insularity, and it is no accident that the most famous American contributions to philosophy have been pragmatism and instrumentalism, systems meant to reconcile our practical inclinations with some notion of the overall pattern of things — and all of this without (openly) going outside of the framework of empiricism and naturalism.

This was a tall order, but one of the central figures, John Dewey, coming out of postmillennialist Protestantism by way of Hegelianism, was up to the job. His and other, similar systems became the centerpiece of 20th-century American u201Cempirical collectivism,u201D u201Cpluralism,u201D and managerial statism, in which there are no absolutes and we go with the flow, adjusting individual and society to the unfolding pattern of history, chiefly through society's neutral and omnicompetent organ, the state.[39]

Of course pragmatism seems to be all about u201Cgetting things done,u201D finding out u201Cwhat works,u201D and achieving u201Csocial adjustmentu201D through public policy. It is thus an outlook seems well suited to American society, even when combined with an odd sort of fatalism.

In most hands, fatalism would be a rather gloomy outlook.

Americans, with their relentless faith in Progress, turn fatalism into a species of historical inevitably in which every that has happened so far, had in principle to happen, but fortunately everything always turns out for the best in America.[40] Lawton noted some applications: u201CProbably more important in fixing the attitude of Northern unionists is their fatalistic view of history. Their mixed pragmatic-deterministic perspective on the events of our past holds that each step in the national development was for the best to all concerned: Northerners, Southerners, whites, blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Creoles, recent immigrants. Thus compromise, in this view, is ruled out; the issues are too fundamental. The Civil War was, therefore, a total conflict which could end only in the unconditional victory of one side. This sounds exactly like the Liberals' view of World War II, which was also fought to the bitter end….u201D[41]

Under the signs of empiricism and naturalism, Americans naturally adopt Scientism[42] as their working philosophy. Hence the focus on gadgets, devices, whosits, – with no higher end than some immediate practical purpose. Technique becomes its own end, and the notion sets in that, if you can do something, you must do it — so that if you could destroy the moon with a very clever missile, that u201Cprojectu201D must be u201Cstudiedu201D and some damned fool will actually want to do it.

As Lukacs puts it, u201Cif, for instance, a computer or a superhighway does not seem to fulfill its function, the American tendency is still to build another superhighway or to get a bigger computer; it is to change the original purpose, the human function rather than the course of the technical solution.u201D[43]

Science — applied science — is seen to work, and in the hands of our ruling pragmatists, wartime R&D and munitions manufacturing arrive as the highest stage of scientism. The link to Total War is plain, and bombing, as perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of the applied American intellect, follows inevitably.

Alexander P. de Seversky, quite mad Russian emigr and air power advocate, advised Americans in 1942 on the advantages of that military arm: u201CWhen the skies over a nation are captured, everything below lies at the mercy of the enemy's air weapons. There is no reason why the job of annihilation should at that point be turned over to the mechanized infantry, when it can be carried out more efficiently and without opposition from overhead. Indeed, the kind of large-scale demolition, which would be looked upon as horrifying vandalism when undertaken by soldiers on the ground can be passed off as a technical preparation or u2018softening' when carried out by aerial bombing. The technique of three-dimensional blockade — cutting off exterior contacts and continuously demolishing internal communications and economic life — can be applied for a protracted period.u201D[44]

Yes, indeed: u201Cannihilation,u201D u201Clarge-scale demolitionu201D amounting to u201Chorrifying vandalismu201D but u201Cpassed off as a technical preparationu201D — such things did not need to be sold to Americans; they already suited the practical American mindset to a tee. This seems to confirm de Riencourt's seemingly hostile judgment that u201CAmericans have, unconsciously and mostly out of sheer idealism, reduced man to an animal level, although an animal in command of fabulous technical powers.u201D[45]

Oddly, the great American gift for the practical appears not to reach to an understanding other societies, or even their languages. Lack of attention to languages might seem a fault in a people whose leaders want to drag them around the world on an empire-building mission. Modest suggestion: If u201Cweu201D can't bother to learn the relevant language, u201Cweu201D might at least put off invading a country until people there have had time to learn u201Cworld English.u201D


Leaving to one side two World Wars, let us take up the story at the beginning of the glorious Cold War, when Applied American Idealism entered yet another stage, as u201Cwar liberalismu201D shifted into Cold War liberalism.[46] The Cold War institutionalized state-subsidized, centralized R&D, u201Cgalloping corporatism,u201D[47] and a federal takeover of education at all levels (partly under the banner of u201CCivil Rightsu201D), among other trends. The Cold War became the ideal backdrop for the pragmatist-pluralists' state-managerial revolution.

Of course all the World War II trappings such as bombs, bombers, and bombing rose to new heights in the Cold War order and u201Cmilitary-industrial complexu201D eventually became a household word. The American Celebration sailed smoothly along and Americans evolved overlong arms for patting their collective back, together with special mirrors in which to admire themselves.

The Cold War opposed Total Good to Total Evil and provided a colossal stage for American obsessions, overreaching, and misconceived generosity. Curti summarized Colliers'fictional account of World War III, which appeared in October 1952, as follows: u201C[T]he Colliers writers envisaged the reconstruction of a defeated Soviet Union in accordance with dominant American ideas about freedom and comfort — including a style show in the Kremlin to give Soviet women the fashions they have been unhappily pining for these thirty odd years!u201D[48]

In 1961, the literary critic Edmund Wilson summed up the culture of the High Cold War in this manner:

u201CAfter the war, the troops and agents of the U.S.A. moved in all over Europe and Asia, from West Germany to South Korea, and we found ourselves confronted by the Soviet Union, which was also moving in. Neither the Soviet Russians nor we were very much beloved by the peoples in upon whom they had moved. The rivalry of power units had now reached an even more gigantic scale than that of the British and German Empires. The Russians and we produced nuclear weapons to flourish at one another and played the game of calling bad names when there had been nothing at issue between us that need have prevented our living in the same world and when we were actually, for better or worse, becoming more and more alike — the Russians emulating America in their frantic industrializing and we imitating them in our persecution of non-conformist political opinion, while both, to achieve their ends, were building up huge government bureaucracies in the hands of which the people have seemed helpless.u201D[49]

Also writing in 1961, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet likewise found Cold War culture unattractive: u201CIn human terms, to suppose that the United States can long maintain a political and military machine of containment dimensions without destroying the localism, pluralism, and free enterprise in all spheres that are the true basis of American freedom and creativity, is to suppose utter fantasy. The affinity between militarism and socialist collectivism is, and has been throughout history, a close one.u201D[50]

Thirty more years dragged by and then, thankfully, we u201Cwonu201D the Cold War — or, at least, outspent the other Gnostic enterprise, the Soviet Union, whose hampered economy collapsed under its own weight. After a bad patch, during which dedicated empire men had to scrape several barrels in search of a new threat, Terrorism came along to save them with a war against Evil.

Lately, US assertion of the u201Crightu201D of US businesses to entry into all overseas markets, dating from 1898, has given way to a demand for a worldwide ideological u201Copenness.u201D[51] I suppose transparency and Universal Trust will be next. With smart bombs and cruise missiles, the reigning US ideologists will seek to impose the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the rest of our domestic policies on a presumptively grateful world. I would certainly be the next to Last Man to oppose such a noble program. Anyway, one is not supposed to oppose establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth, Secular Division, when American know-how and firepower stand as the outward signs of an inward grace.

This brings us full circle, because — given any absurdly utopian or utterly crazed goal – Americans are very, very good at coming up with attempted means.

One means currently in vogue is the policy of inciting and supervising revolution in other countries – or pretended u201Crevolutions,u201D at least — under the slogan of widening u201Cthe area of freedom.u201D[52] US authorities used to complain when the Soviets said, and did, things like that. Even the Domino Theory has come back, but now it is a good Domino Theory in which one forcible conversion to democracy leads to the next one and then to the one after that.


Historian Dwight G. Anderson gives an interesting account of the ideological pattern under discussion and the foreign policies springing from it. He writes that after 1865, u201Ca regenerate people, relieved of the original sin of slavery, went forth in the world, secure in the knowledge that there was no salvation outside the church, and proceeded to re-found the Union again and again in the international sphere — in the League of Nations and United Nations, in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. By winning the war on the terms that he did, Lincoln not only proved that the Union had God on its side and that emancipation had divine sanction, but he provided the ideological rationale whereby the United States could become lawgiver to the world.u201D

There could be, on this reading, no logical stopping-pointed for the Saved Union, because u201Cthe assumption that America's cause is the cause of all mankind implicitly provides the rationale for the Americanization of the world: the grand and global alliance of North and South, East and West, is but the Union writ large and extended to its ultimate earthly conclusion.u201D In the u201Cpolitical religionu201D presided over by Lincoln's shade, u201CAmerican political and economic expansion itself could be seen as redemptive.u201D

Further, Lincoln had seen himself as re-founding the Union — on his terms – by re-enacting the American Revolution. Thus, says, Anderson, u201Cthe perpetuation of American liberalism, in short, can perhaps best be understood not so much as an ongoing tradition but as a recurrent foundation fantasy, complete with a myth of the eternal return.u201D[53]

I shall just note in passing, that the myth of eternal return, in which much the same events are periodically done all over again, is essentially pagan.

And thus the official US view of international relations resembles more and more that of the Great Khans, as summed up by Eric Voegelin: u201CAll human societies are part of the Mongol empire by virtue of the Order of God, even if they are not yet conquered. The actual expansion of the empire, therefore, follows a very strict process of law. Societies whose turn for actual integration into the empire has come must be notified by ambassadors… and requested to make their submission. If they refuse, or perhaps kill the ambassadors, then they are rebels, and military sanctions will be taken against them. The Mongol empire, thus, by its own legal order has never conducted a war but only punitive expeditions against rebellious subjects of the empire.u201D[54]

Just as Lincoln was an u201Cartificial Puritan,u201D[55] so, too, do Neo-Conservatives (in particular, Straussians) make an artificial Lincoln the center of their secular theology and cult. This Lincoln is nothing like the real Lincoln with his real human faults and (possible) virtues, but a Rouseauian Legislator, a demigod who founded, or re-founded, the union with far more u201Cblood and ironu201D than Bismarck used in the wars of German unification.

More importantly, this Lincoln becomes an eternal civic role model, whose deeds must be periodically re-enacted as long as America still stands.

Under the view shared by Lincolnians and Mongol Khans, international conflicts become internal, all resistance u201Crebellion,u201D and all opponents u201Cunauthorized combatants.u201D Only the U.S. authorities have the right to decide such things, while carrying out the Will of History, and international law becomes an expression of their judgment and whimsy. They feel free to u201Ctryu201D opponents as u201Cwar criminals.u201D Finally, it becomes an affront for any other power, no matter how small, to have any weapons at all. If such a power so much as mentions a right to self-defense, that in itself becomes evidence of boundless ambition and u201Caggressionu201D directed at the United States.

Meanwhile, US military authorities (too clever by half) have issued u201CWantedu201D posters for their defeated enemies in the form of a deck of cards, while the servile press gloats that u201CUS has Saddam's DNA.u201D One wonders where the u201Cnewsu201D is in that? Eventually, they'll have everyone's DNA, which u201Ccan and will be used againstu201D the selfsame Everyone u201Cin a court of law,u201D whatever that last word now means.

And note that u201CSaddam,u201D like the rest of us, is now on a first name basis with everyone else, just as he or any of us would be in California.

For their next joke, in their next war, the US authorities will probably issue Tarot Cards. Why not? Such gestures, among many others, are a perfect expression of the conjoncture of boundless US aspirations (toward what? It doesn't matter), high technology, and a vulgar, insipid, and moronic popular culture. It is a culture whose wittiest expression now, and for a couple of decades, has been u201Ckick ass.u201D No wonder we have to import humorous expressions from Australia and even the UK.

Recent events — with which I am otherwise not directly concerned here – might well be called the First Demotic War, or the First Fox News War. No wonder u201Cweu201D had to have the Brits along for the ride: they still show some knack for using the English language, and, well, that's like, whoa! It would have been a shame to have a war without a complete English sentence or two in it, and as we could not have relied on the president for any of those, it is just as well that Messrs. Blair and Howard were so keen to help out.


And so the debasement of language continues, and under that sign, empty counters jostle happily alongside mere technique, and thus arises an endless series of conceptual displacements. We end up being asked to believe in Freedom the Abstraction, rather than in any concrete freedoms, and with it, the u201CAmerican way of lifeu201D – in practice a peculiar cult of unspecified vlkisch values, manipulated by a managerial elite.

There is precedent for this. Anderson writes that, u201Cthose who died at Gettysburg did so not in order to effect their own freedom, but for the sake of an abstraction — the survival of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to an egalitarian proposition.u201D Since Lincoln's famous address further called on the living u201Cto dedicate themselves to the cause of freedom rather than to freedom itself, this meant that their dedication was not in order to obtain freedom's immediate effects, but for the sake of political rebirth and immortality.u201D[56]

Thus whole mobs of abstractions fight for control of the American political mind — freedom, equality, and America the Abstraction, itself — especially when it is time to mobilize the people for some cause dear to their leaders. At home, campaigns and u201Cwarsu201D are made upon other abstractions like Hate, Violence, Drugs, Poverty, Racism, Terrorism, and — guaranteed to last a very long while — Evil itself. We are, after all, the only modern nation to have seriously tried to outlaw the production and possession of alcoholic beverages, and to have stayed with it well past the time the idiocy of the whole thing was more than clear.

Randolph Bourne remarked the conceptual displacements accepted by Progressives who swarmed into Washington to serve the state in World War One: u201C[W]ith the other prophets of instrumentalism who accompany Dewey into the war, democracy remains an unanalyzed term, useful as a call to battle, but not an intellectual tool, turning up fresh sod for the changing future.u201D Further: u201CTo those of us who have taken Dewey's philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred that values could be subordinated to techniqueu201D — but of course they were.[57]

At the rate we are going, we should not be too shocked, when our grandchildren are told, that u201Cthe boysu201D – and girls? – u201Care fighting for our freedomu201D on the moons of Saturn. Whatever the mission, the troops will have the best technology that quadrillions of inflated paper dollars can buy. The weapons will be so precise as to hit a selected molecule on the u201Ctargetu201D and, at the same time, so destructive as to u201Ctake outu201D that molecule and all the neighboring molecules found in a space the size of two football fields.

This sort of thing renders the notion of u201Cprecisionu201D rather meaningless, but you can't ask Americans to short themselves on precision and destruction. We must have the best of both. Excess is our middle name.[58]

Such is the alchemy involved in our expansionist state apparatus and the inflationary culture it promotes. The project demands monetary inflation and that, in turn, helps produce the unstable American character under discussion. In the long run, the resulting instability may someday undercut the Yankee project of controlling the future.


Albert Jay Nock had this to say: u201CA society that gives play only to the instinct of expansion must inevitably be characterized by a low type of intellect, a grotesque type of religion, a factitious style of morals, an imperfect type of beauty, an imperfect type of social life and manners. In a word, it is uncivilized.u201D[59]

One thing does appear to be stable, however: Once you brainwash and bamboozle the American masses, they stay brainwashed and bamboozled. After Pearl Harbor, as all Establishment historians like to boast, Americans believed that u201Cisolationismu201D had become u201Cimpossible.u201D This means, apparently, that asking our government to mind its own business — to have that u201Chumbleu201D foreign policy heralded by Bush the Candidate – is now literally impossible.

One is reminded of the u201Ccomplex of fear and vaunting,u201D which Garet Garrett said was a hallmark of empire.[60] Note that part of the fear comes from the assumption that it is fatal not to extend our system everywhere. If the whole world is not the same as we are, in every respect, we shall never be able to sleep at night.

For us, or against us: No one may be indifferent.

After several centuries' trying, American civilization has yielded up a rather shallow political wisdom and a sort of fractional-reserve culture in which there is much less than meets the eye. Mr. Bill Bennett and some others believe the whole thing can be cobbled back together via some form of compulsory civic religion. I suppose the central teaching of this indoctrination will be that the U.S. Government is God, or at least God's representative walking on earth.

Whether such an effort in political theology is workable or not is an interesting question. Edward Lawton argued that a secularized substitute religion could not succeed: u201CIn mundane things the whole cannot be greater than the sum of all its parts; and all the parts which go to make up America do not add up to anything that is holier than many other advanced nations of the world. The answer that the super-patriots make to this is to try to suppress analysis, and in this they have had much success.u201D[61]

Just in passing, I would add that calls for suppression of speech in wartime chiefly stem, philosophically, from the demand that every American agree wholeheartedly with the crusade of the week, and much less from genuine u201Csecurityu201D concerns. A culture with any genuine self-confidence would not lie awake at night fretting that Mr. Smith down the street might not fully u201Csupportu201D the cause of the moment or might fail to love the president. It ought to be enough that Smith, however outraged he may be at the course of events, refrains from appearing in arms to oppose it.

He might not be a good u201Ccitizenu201D in that respect, but he could well be a damned good neighbor.

This will not satisfy those who hold that Will must be One in order for society to exist at all. Here u201Cnominalismu201D and the u201CPuritan-Gnosticu201D view of politics coincide in affirming a Will-to-Imperial-Power.[62]

Thus, we have saved the best for last. In the end, the u201CAmerican religionu201D — to use Harold Bloom's useful term — was essentially Gnostic. The various millennialisms had always run in that direction. This should concern us because, as Eric Voegelin, the subject's most careful student, wrote: u201CGnostic politics… is self-defeating in so far as its disregard for the structure of reality leads to continuous warfare. This system of chain wars can end only in one of two ways. Either it will result in horrible physical destructions and concomitant revolutionary changes of social order beyond reasonable guesses; or, with the natural change of generations, it will lead to the abandoning of Gnostic dreaming before the worst has happened.u201D[63]

Alas, Voegelin seems to have been entirely too sanguine and, if nothing intervenes, an exciting — and monstrous — 21st century looms before us. Leaders inclined toward Gnosticism, in command and control of the world's largest-ever array of military might, do not bode well for the kind of restraint and reflection on which civilization is built. This is worth pondering as the proponents — or manipulators – of the u201CAmerican religionu201D continue their figurative march from the Burned-Over District of upstate New York toward the Burned-Over Planet of their dreams.


Much of the above critique — right or wrong, as it may be — was once seen as distinctly u201Cconservative.u201D It was never a u201Cleftistu201D critique.

There were some brave, if half-cocked, attempts to escape from u201CAmericau201D defined as Greater New England. A couple million monographs on slavery notwithstanding, it remains true that Southern secession was precisely a struggle to avoid Americanization in the sense just noted. The resistance put forth by those who settled Utah might also be seen in this light, even if that story began in Greater New England.

In Edward Everett Hale's story, The Man Without a Country, written to buck up Northern morale during the Yankees' war to control the future, Hale's narrator says he has recorded the life of Philip Nolan, who renounced the United States, u201Cas a warning to the young Nolans and Vallandighams and Tatnals of to-day of what it is to throw away a country.u201D[64]

One hundred forty years later, the warning, whatever slight merits it may have once had, is addressed to the wrong people. Instead, someone needs to warn the US ruling elite of u201Cwhat it is to throw away a country.u201D I grant they are not likely to listen. After all, they can do what they are doing, and therefore, by Yankee (= u201CAmericanu201D) logic, they must do it.


Up to this point, I have slighted bureaucratic-institutional drives and economic motives so as to concentrate on ideology. Now it is perhaps time to link some things up. A brief summary might run as follows: a number of boarding parties — postmillennialists, followers of Auguste Comte and G. W. F. Hegel, Darwinists, pragmatists, instrumentalists, ex-Trotskyists, and so on – got on the state's train at different stations and at different times. Despite their fights with one another, the key is that the train they boarded was always going in the direction of greater state power over society.

US leaders have become very handy at manipulating themes that resonate with sundry layers of this cumulative ideological wasteland. Right now they are working overtime with the themes of universal republicanism (u201Cdemocracyu201D) and world salvation via US violence. The fellow at the top is very good at putting a theological gloss on the whole business.

If I am right in saying that Americans have long labored under a set of mistaken ideas, it is important to see what I have not said. I have not claimed, for example, that Americans have had a flawed but coherent outlook. It was not all that coherent. Americans never bridged the blatant inner contradictions of their worldview; instead, they insisted that, somehow, all the parts were equally true.

Nonetheless, the pattern of ideas outlined here has existed and continues to exist.

As far as theologies go, it is not my wish to enter into such disputations. Let the sundry millennialists sort out their differences as best they may. I would only ask them to sunder their eschatological concerns, as much as they can, from open-ended commitments to messianic, state-aggrandizing, imperial missions. After a century and a half, we could all do with a little rest.

I have not said that all Americans have believed, at all times, the things under discussion. Some Americans rejected the lot and were seen as u201CunAmericansu201D or u201Canti-Americansu201D for disbelieving these fantasies. Some nonbelievers committed the unforgivable hate crime of moving to Europe in hopes of finding civilization. Others went into a kind of internal exile.

For better or worse, all of us are — as Americans — internal to the problem; we can no more shed our Americanness than we can teach the Prussian King's horse to fly. Indeed, it is probably only Americans who would care enough about American life to make judgments as harsh as those I have quoted. We are in a position like that of E. A. Freeman, late 19th-century pro-Saxon English historian, in relation to the Norman Conquest. He wrote: u201CIt is owing to the coming of William that we can not trace the history of our native speech, that we can not raise our wail for its corruption without borrowing largely from the store of foreign words which, but for his coming, would never have crossed the sea. So strong a hold have the intruders taken on our soil, that we can not tell the tale of their coming without their help.u201D[65]

Just so: We cannot even raise up an outcry against the twists and turns of the u201CAmericanu201D mind without doing so partly within categories created by New Englanders. I will not even say that this is all bad. For all I know, there is even some merit in Walt Whitman, although I simply cannot see it. (I mention Whitman because Neo-Cons are currently recommending him as a prophet of u201Cdemocratic imperialismu201D — as if there were a shortfall on those.)

Let us be fair, too, to the actually existing New Englanders. Many of their descendants, perhaps chastened by World War II or the dangers of nuclear war, have given up crusading in the international sphere, and confine their crusading to the domestic sphere, adhering, roughly speaking, to the McGovernite wing of American politics. Some, indeed, gave up external empire as early as 1900, as leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League. At the same time, many of the former enemies of the postmillennialists — Southerners included – have taken over the crusade in foreign affairs abandoned by (at least some) Yankees.

Poor New England: After imposing on the South and West an ideology that sacralized the federal state, it has receded to manageable dimensions. In some of its former realm, a Catholic majority dwells. It is hard to say what Cotton Mather would make of that.

Meanwhile, the modern, abstract, bureaucratic state, armed with New England ideas and later variations on them, has gone on to greater glory, and now threatens with extinction even the authentic local culture of New England, which doubtless has its merits. (I shall not use the word u201Cironyu201D now, because Professor Eric Foner has taken out a ninety-year lease on it.) If New England ever tries making a run for it, as was discussed there in 1815, one could only cheer them on.


There are a u201Csilenceu201D and an u201Cabsenceu201D haunting current treatment of these questions: what is missing is any realistic analysis of states. Anyone with the wit to distinguish the US central state from u201CAmerica,u201D even once or twice a year, could work out that what may be in the interest of the state rulers is not necessarily in the interest of actually existing Americans, considered separately from the rulers. Of course the press corps, the universities, and many other sectors of American society now display a credulous faith in the state as their defender and, indeed, the source of all things good.

Americans seem to have little faith in their own powers and have, once again, characteristically confounded means and ends, carts and horses. What is needed is a hardheaded treatment of the state as such, of the kind that Murray Rothbard produced.[66] On his analysis, the state is a profoundly antisocial institution whose personnel and allies gain by encroaching on the property and freedom of those whom they allegedly u201Cserve.u201D

On the face of it, this might seem a good starting point for dealing with the world of political conflict, as against fairy-tales in which one Good State stands exempt from the faults of all other states. Starting there, it might be possible to see how a politicized notion of the Kingdom of God on Earth might have helped undermine our freedoms, or how republicanism operated, generally, as a Trojan Horse within the walls of 19th-century liberalism, yielding nationalism and, much later, national socialism.

Where republicanism is concerned, Americans were always closer to Rousseau than they admitted — including, or perhaps especially, the sainted Federalists; indeed, it may only have been the Federalists' open insistence that they were an elite who should preside over the utopian project that has given them the appearance of having been conservative. This mistaken identity owes much to our latter-day populist posturing about the common man.

As republicanism shifted into democracy, the whole problem of the inner unity of u201Cdemocracyu201D and u201Ctotalitarianismu201D takes the stage. This is said to be the inexorable nature of the u201Cmodern,u201D but if so, it may not quite mean what the luminous Ralf Dahrendorf thinks it does.[67] Quite a few u201Cclassical liberals,u201D ready to re-enact the original late 19th century sellout of liberalism, believe that things are just fine as they are now. Ford's in his flivver and u201Cdemocracies never attack other democracies.u201D

That last item is hardly our problem today. Our problem is the current popularity of Rousseau's plan of u201Cforcing people to be freeu201D — a notion that dovetails nicely with the old expansionist axiom of American republicanism, just when pretended classical liberals and other Neo-Cons have begun to speak of u201Cimposing spontaneous orderu201D! The British role in Inja is mooted, though some might think the British role in Ireland and South Africa is more to the point.

It is held to be the duty of Americans to take up this and related burdens. Cold War liberals used to dilate learnedly about the petty-bourgeois u201Cstatus resentmentu201D and agrarian u201Cnostalgiau201D of those who failed to sign on for such crusades. Neo-Cons lecture the refuseniks on their u201Calienation.u201D In their view, the US state-revolutionary train has left the station bound for the Future, and these craven u201Cisolationistsu201D have willfully thrown away their boarding passes.

Alienation from global imperial empire crusading in the name of abstract freedom — imagine that!

There are some serious flaws in the American outlook. Over time, unfortunate habits of thought have grown up among us, which ambitious men can fiddle – in the service of ends for which we never knowingly signed up. It is up to us, as Americans, to think our way out of the abyss before which we currently stand.

Such rethinking cannot proceed without an American critique of a set of mistakes and phantasms said, by our overlords, to be the only possible American ideas available. The hour is late. If we cannot look in the historical mirror and see what needs to be changed, we shall find ourselves saying, repeatedly, with Lincoln, u201CAnd the war came.u201D

US leaders will go on declaring the u201Clawu201D west, east, north, and south of the Pecos, re-founding the Union, and re-fighting the u201CCivil Waru201D until the end of time,[68] or until the whole thing falls apart, whichever comes first. It is a consummation devoutly to be avoided.


[1] John Lukacs, The Decline and Rise of Europe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), p. 272, note.

[2] Amaury deRiencourt, The Coming Caesars (New York: Coward-McMann, 1957).

[3] Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980 [1968]).

[4] See Gary North, u201CMillenialism and the Progressive Movement,u201D Journal of Libertarian Studies, 12, 1 (Spring 1966), pp. 1211–142.

[5] Murray N. Rothbard, u201COrigins of the Welfare State in America,u201D Journal of Libertarian Studies, 12, 2 (Fall 1996), p. 199. For maps showing the Yankee Belt, or u201CGreater New England,u201D see Kevin Phillips, The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 413, 416.

[6] William G. McLoughlin, u201CPietism and the American Character,u201D American Quarterly, 17, 2 (Summer 1965), p. 173, note. McLoughlin gives a number of left-liberal examples of supposed American u201Chypocrisyu201D which seem to me entirely off the mark, but his general point is well taken.

[7] William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1973 [1961]), pp. 95–96 (my emphasis).

[8] Cf. James H. Moorhead, "Between Progress and Apocalypse: A Reassessment of Millennialism in American Religious Thought, 1800-1880," Journal of American History, 71, 3 (Dec. 1984), pp. 531-533.

[9] Williams, pp. 157-162, and J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 391-396, 510-513

[10] See Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).

[11] Paul Gottfried, u201CLiberalism vs. Democracy,u201D Journal of Libertarian Studies, 12, 2 (Fall 1996), pp. 243-245.

[12] u201CThe Crisis in Europe II: Intervention of the United States,u201D United States Democratic Review, 30 [168] (June 1852), pp. 554-569.

[13] John Lukacs, A History of the Cold War (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1961), p. 187.

[14] Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), p. 245, note.

[15] Major L. Wilson, Space, Time and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815–1861 (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1974), pp. 67-70.

[16] Williams, pp. 250-255 and 297-300.

[17] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., u201CThe Causes of the Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism,u201D Partisan Review, XVI (October 1949), pp. 969-981.

[18] Quoted in Moorhead, p. 532.

[19] Otto Scott, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (Murphys, CA: Uncommon Books, 1979), pp. 295-296

[20] Francis B. Simkins, u201CTolerating the South's Past,u201D Journal of Southern History, 21, 1 (February 1955), p. 3.

[21] C. B. Robson, u201CFrancis Lieber's Theories of Society, Government, and Liberty,u201D Journal of Politics, 4, 2 (May 1942), p. 237.

[22] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pp. 59-66.

[23] Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

[24] Edward P. Lawton, The South and the Nation (Fort Myers Beach, FL: Island Press, 1963), p. 71.

[25] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1974 [1918]), pp. 225-226.

[26] Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001), p. 143.

[27] This switch is traced in Paul C. Nagel, One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought, 1776–1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

[28] Lawton, p. 66.

[29] Williams, p. 285.

[30] See William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), and Ernest N. Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973).

[31] Williams, p. 365 (italics in original).

[32] George W. Pierson, u201Cu2018A Restless Temper,'u201D American Historical Review, 69, 4 (July 1964), p. 985.

[33] Lawton, p. 62–65.

[34] De Riencourt, p. 277.

[35] Lukacs, History of the Cold War, p. 189.

[36] Merle Curti, u201CHuman Nature in American Thought: Retreat from Reason in the Age of Science,u201D Political Science Quarterly, 68, 4 (December 1953), p. 500 (my emphasis).

[37] Neal Wood, u201CTabula Rasa, Social Environmentalism, and the u2018English Paradigm,'u201D Journal of the History of Ideas, 53, 4 (October-December 1992), pp. 647-668.

[38] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 3.

[39] See Paul Edward Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[40] This parallels the American reception of the gloomy determinism of Sigmund Freud; in American hands, Freudianism naturally licensed an optimistic, short-sighted, and orgiastic cult of self-fulfillment centered in California.

[41] Lawton, p. 31 (my emphasis).

[42] F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1955).

[43] Lukacs, Decline and Rise of Europe, p. 268.

[44] Quoted in Russell Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), pp. 239-240.

[45] De Riencourt, p. 277.

[46] See William H. Epstein, u201CCounter-Intelligence: Cold War Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies,u201D ELH, 57, 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 63-99.

[47] Howard J. Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics: The Other Greatu201CIsmu201D (London: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), pp. 128-151.

[48] Curti, p. 505.

[49] Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: The Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. xxviii.

[50] Robert Nisbet, u201CForeign Policy and the American Mind,u201D Studies in History and Philosophy #7 (Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1978 [1961]), p. 14.

[51] On the theme of imposed u201Copenness,u201D see Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), passim.

[52] Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny (Chicago: Quandrangle Books, 1963 [1935]), pp. 100-129.

[53] Anderson, pp. 192, 210, 225, and 218-219.

[54] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1952]), p. 58.

[55] M. E. Bradford, u201CThe Lincoln Legacy: A Long View,u201D in Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 143.

[56] Anderson, p. 227.

[57] Randolph Bourne, u201CTwilight of the Idols,u201D Untimely Papers (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1919), pp. 123, 130-131

[58] Cf. Robert Higgs, u201CMilitary Precision versus Moral Precision,u201D .

[59] Albert Jay Nock, Cogitations from Albert Jay Nock (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Nockian Society, 1985), p. 54.

[60] Garet Garrett, The People's Pottage (Boston: Western Islands, 1965 [1953]), pp. 123-125.

[61] Lawton, pp. 68-69.

[62] Cf. A. J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2001), pp. 71-72. Professor Conyers is, of course, not responsible for my application of his ideas here.

[63] Voegelin, p. 173 (my italics).

[64] Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country and Other Tales (New York: Magnum Books, 1968), p. 40.

[65] E. A. Freeman, quoted in Jean Roemer, Origins of the English People and of the English Language (New York: D. Appleton, 1888), p. 455.

[66] See Murray N. Rothbard, u201CAnatomy of the Stateu201D (1965).

[67] Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), esp. 365-396; and see Hans-Herman Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 2001).

[68] There will some economies in the business, however; u201CMarching Through Georgiau201D can be re-written slightly to accommodate some future campaign in former Soviet Georgia.

April 21, 2003