Defining Americanism

If Patrick Deneen wants to discuss the nature and meaning of Americanism, I’m happy to oblige. Before I do that, though, let me make clear in no uncertain terms what is at stake here. I concluded my Cato Unbound essay with these words: “Those who wish to defend America’s Enlightenment values and the individual-rights republic created by its revolutionary Founders must therefore recapture from the neocons the intellectual and moral highground that once defined the promise of American life.” In response, Deneen writes as follows: “It is not fascism that is to be feared, but the universalizing and even imperialistic logic internal to Enlightenment philosophy itself that significantly inspired the Founders and animates neoconservative foreign policy.” In a nutshell, here then are the philosophic differences between Deneen and Thompson: he is an opponent of Enlightenment liberalism, while I am its proponent. Our mutually exclusive definitions of Americanism hinge on this difference.

Consider for a moment what Deneen is really suggesting here. He is staking his intellectual credibility on denouncing publicly what he calls “the imperialistic logic of Enlightenment philosophy.” In other words, what he’s really suggesting is that truth and logic are imperialistic, as are the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, Deneen finds himself in the same company with many radical feminists, multiculturalists, environmentalists, postmodernists, and Islamic totalitarians. They too find America’s Enlightenment values inherently “imperialistic.”

But there’s more. Deneen seeks to find a pre-Enlightenment philosophy of “robust localism” shorn of the “universalizing and even imperialistic logic internal to Enlightenment philosophy.” As he wrote recently at his blog, Front Porch Republic, Deneen supports the creation of a new philosophy that “would be a kind of anti-Enlightenment—one that will recommend not the acquisition of scientific knowledge for the end of human conquest of nature, but rather the cultivation of the ‘virtue of ignorance’ toward the end of a more humble and deeper understanding of nature of which we are fundamentally and inescapably a part—and which, we are able to frankly acknowledge and accept, will kill us in the end.”[1] And so whereas Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss want to begin the long trek back to Platonic political philosophy, Deneen wants to get off the bus somewhere in the Dark Ages.

If we’re to have a serious discussion of “Americanism,” we should define our terms. Americanism is, in my view, something specific, whereas for Deneen it is everything and nothing. His Americanism would include the “robust localism” of Bull Connor Republicans, the national-greatness conservatism of David Brooks, and everything in between. These traditions may have an American history, but they do not define what is unique about America.

So, enough of Deneen and the “virtue of ignorance.” Let me now explain how I understand the nature and meaning of Americanism.

Americanism is a wide abstraction with a complex—if contested—meaning. It’s part political philosophy, part culture, part moral virtue, part attitude. Defined most broadly, Americanism is that political philosophy which identifies and defines the way of life and moral character most unique to the people of the United States of America. It prescribes a certain political philosophy and it describes the unique conditions under which that theory was translated into practice by millions of ordinary men and women in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. At a deeper level, Americanism captures the meaning of what Ayn Rand once referred to as the “American sense of life.”[2] Describing what the theory of Americanism is and how it was translated into practice is, however, no easy task.

Americanism is a curious concept that has no foreign counterpart. It suggests that the American identity is defined and shaped by an idea, an “ism,” or an ideology. No other nation has anything quite like it. We may speak of a French, an Italian, or a Persian culture, but there is no French-ism, Italian-ism, or Persian-ism. Americanism, by contrast, is more than just a culture steeped in historically evolved folkways (i.e., the forms and formalities associated with speech dialects, food, music, dress, architecture etc.). America’s traditional folkways (including Deneen’s various localisms) are no doubt different from those of any other nation, but such cultural accoutrements do not capture the essence of Americanism.

What, then, is Americanism? What are its principal characteristics? The answers to these questions will be found most clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was the practical and theoretical symbol of this new ideology. It represented both a heroic action (i.e., a formal declaration to the world of American independence from Great Britain) and a revolutionary idea (i.e., the doctrine of individual rights). It forever associated the American way of life with a social system that recognized, defined and protected the rights of individuals as sacrosanct. Morally, Americanism insisted that men have a right to be free—free to pursue their individual happiness without the interference of others. Politically, it declared that government should be strictly limited to protecting individual rights, which meant creating a sphere of freedom institutionalized by a separation of church and state, school and state, economy and state, and culture and state. Economically, it said that individuals should be free to produce and exchange their goods and services free of government control, and that they should be able to keep and/or dispose of their wealth without it being taken by the government. Socially, it was perhaps best captured by another distinctly American colloquialism: the idea of rugged individualism.

In sum, Americanism meant a principled commitment to freedom. It was associated with the moral and political principles of a society in which individuals were morally sovereign and left free of government interference to be self-owning, self-starting, self-reliant, and self-fulfilling.[3] It meant self-government in the fullest sense of the term (i.e., morally, politically, socially, and economically).

The meaning of Americanism today, however, is very different. To the extent that the term is even still used, its meaning has been highjacked by both the Left and the Right. The Left most often identifies Americanism with multiculturalism, relativism, environmentalism, regulation, and welfarism—in other words, with progressivism.[4] The Right typically identifies Americanism with Christianity, school prayer, tradition, family values, and community standards—in other words, with social conservatism.[5] None of these values are, however, uniquely American. In fact, in one form or another, they all have a distinctly European provenance that is set in direct opposition to the native meaning of Americanism.

How have I arrived at my definition of Americanism? Briefly, my methodology is similar to that of a distillery: it refines, extracts, and condenses the essential spirit of Americanism. My process therefore treats and filters out all of the impurities that have polluted the distinctive qualities that define the concept Americanism. My definition captures that which is most unique to America—that which was not a foreign import or born elsewhere.

We must always keep in mind, however that Americanism in practice (i.e., the reality of life in America day-to-day) has no doubt sometimes stood in stark relief to the ideal of Americanism. It is certainly true that the philosophy of Americanism has not always been applied equally to all Americans at all times and in all ways. Even the most laissez-faire period of American history was full of controls, regulations, and supports of one kind or another. More importantly, the wicked and tragic history of chattel slavery in America followed by the institutionalized discrimination of African-Americans after their emancipation are the most obvious examples of how Americans have not always lived up to the ideal of Americanism.

How, then, do we account for these obvious inconsistencies and contradictions? Abraham Lincoln helps us to understand the inconsistent and paradoxical relationship between the ideal and the real in American history. In his 1857 speech on the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln noted that the original theorists of Americanism, our founding fathers,

meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked up to, constantly laboured for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colours everywhere.[6]

The exception, slavery, thus does not disprove the rule or invalidate the concept. In fact, it actually helps to highlight the truth and force of Americanism. Lincoln’s “standard maxim” and the constant effort of the American people to always look up to, labor for, and approximate their freedom philosophy symbolizes the true meaning of Americanism. The great fact of Americanism is not that slavery once existed in this country, as it did in many other places, but that a heroic movement arose in the name of America to end it. The freedom philosophy of Americanism freed four million slaves, it liberated women and others from oppressive laws in more recent decades, and it has extended the sphere of freedom in countless other ways. Sadly, though, while we have gained many new freedoms in recent decades, we have also lost many old ones. Thus the history of Americanism has not ended.

Reclaiming the original and proper meaning of this one word—Americanism—is vitally important today because its definition will play an important role in determining how the American people view their past, present, and future. In a sense, the idea of Americanism captures the essence of who and what we are as a nation not only at the political level but also at a deeper psychological level. At stake in this battle to define a single word is nothing less than the future of America itself. The outcome shall determine whether the people of this nation will continue their descent into statism or whether they will recover the original spirit of liberty that first breathed life into what Abraham Lincoln once called mankind’s “last best hope of earth.”[7]

Notes

[1] “The New Lisbon,” http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2011/03/the-new-lisbon/

[2] In her essay “Don’t Let It Go,” Ayn Rand defined the concept “sense of life” as a “pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence.” In Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It? (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1982), 250.

[3] For a classic statement on the relationship between Americanism and a free society from the 1940s, see Ayn Rand, Textbook of Americanism (1946). See also, Leonard Reed, “The Essence of Americanism,” at http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/the-essence-of-americanism/.

[4] Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin, Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). The classic liberal-socialist critique of the original idea of Americanism is contained in Louis Hartz’s, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955).

[5] David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[6] Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” in The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Richard N. Current (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), 88-89.

[7] Abraham Lincoln, “Annual Message to Congress,” December 1, 1862.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservatism Unmasked by C. Bradley Thompson

    Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, and the Foundations for Liberty by Douglas B. Rasmussen

    Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • The American Roots of Neoconservatism by Patrick J. Deneen

    Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Strauss and National Greatness by Damon Linker

    Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.

The Conversation