Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 12

America As a Weary and Nostalgic Culture

A manuscript written in 1987.

William Appleman Williams.
William Appleman Williams.
Image courtesy of the Oregon Times, June 1970.

As in the document itself, there are ambiguities in the American celebration of what most citizens consider The Only CONSTITUTION. On the one hand, there is the charming, if somewhat mindless, faith in what they think of a "Machine That Would Go of Itself;" a perpetual motion contraption that is the Fountain of Eternal Youth and Progress. On the other hand, a significant minority has become increasingly uneasy about the ever more apparent failure of THE CONSTITUTION to socialize and direct that Progress to humane purposes.

The Constitution of the United States of America.
The Constitution of the United States of America.

We have a revealing footnote to that truth provided by Professor Garry Wills of Northwestern University. Wills is an intelligent and shrewd, if also a rather romantically cynical, conservative who believes that the rulers should honor basic responsibilities to themselves and to the ruled. As he says with thoughtful anger in a recent essay, "Power Unchecked" ( Washington Post Magazine, 28 June 1987), American "power to destroy the world is not hedged about with constitutional restrictions." And more: "Thus the government is not accountable to its citizens, while the citizens have to be accountable to the government." Those are two of the deadliest sentences a patriot could write.

Hence what we confront is the decay (if not indeed the subversion) of a grand tradition. This is not nostalgic nonsense. America does have a grand tradition. Few have understood that better than William Best Hesseltine, for many years Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. His presidential address to the Southern Historical Association in 1960 provides crucial insights into why contemporary America is a society in which "the government is not accountable to its citizens."

Hesseltine was an unusually perceptive, tough, and no-nonsense patriot. A man, you could say, who hoped and dreamed and acted the best he could for the common welfare of his country. Hence in 1960, when the seams of American culture seemed to be unraveling (and they were), Hesseltine sought to remind his fellow citizens that, whatever their differences, they had once shared truths that were the blood and bone of a commonwealth. A dream to be realized by honoring community values. In his own marvelous way, Hesseltine was writing his own Port Huron Statement.

Of course Hesseltine would have denied such a description. He was all public bluster against romantic nonsense. And in truth he was correct: he was concerned with the basic historical traditions that can - if honored - sustain a commonwealth. Hesseltine was always a bit shy about his visceral patriotism. He was one of those men who bled privately, quietly, about the health of his beloved country. He could churn up a rhetorical storm about public leaders, but in his soul he was weeping for his fellow citizens who seemed to have lost a sense of commonwealth.

Hence in that presidential address he talked about four traditions: the Trustee, the Squire, the Artisan, and the Yeoman. Once offered, which nobody else had done (and few have since explored or developed), the insight appears obvious and dramatically illuminating. Upper and lower classes in the city and the country shared and tried to honor a contentious yet compatible conception of a commonwealth.

Certainly it was stratified. Certainly it was class bound. But it bespoke the best of what people of that time wanted to try to honor in their own lives and in their dealings with other people. There was self-respect and mutual respect. There was an acceptance of interdependence, a quiet knowing and expectation of mutual obligations. Perhaps most of all, there were certain things that rulers did not do. And if push came to shove, then a revolution involving Trustees and Squires, as well as Artisans and Yeoman, was a legitimate way to save the commonwealth.

There is surely some romanticism, without doubt some idealism, in that conception of the Constitution as a charter for the commonwealth. But also considerable pragmatic substance. That is truly what the fight over the Constitution was all about. The almost majority of people - high and low - who opposed the Constitution did so on the grounds that a central, consolidated government that strong would ultimately destroy the idea and the practice of community and commonwealth. Hence their demand for the First Ten Amendments.

We now know that the almost majority, the critics, were correct. There is no community and no commonwealth in contemporary America. Instead there is a Superpower within which there is not even a dream of the common welfare. As for shared values, there are two: first, get it while you can; second, anybody who gets in the way is a communist. On four days a week, the Superpower asserts its meaningless military power by subverting the Constitution. It uses the other three days to offer various excuses about why it can neither help improve the quality of life of its citizens nor allow them to change the system.

America is indeed weary. Only a handful of its citizens seek seriously to create a community and a commonwealth. The substance of the traditions that Hesseltine described are tattered and torn. There is little respect for, and no anger in support of, a Trustee like Cyrus R. Vance who resigns over a matter of principle. Even the residual sense of being a Squire cannot energize Senator Samuel Nunn of Georgia to speak a flat NO to dangerous and subversive actions by the military (and its civilian consorts). There are no strikes, as there were within memory (say the 1930s), to define and sustain the essence of being an Artisan or a Yeoman.

The heroes of the moment - not just today, but for long years past - are people who lie. Most of our recent leaders admit that they lie, and nobody gives a damn. It is taken as given. So? Granted his serious competition in those sweepstakes, Colonel Oliver North captured the affection of the American public with his candid remark to a Congressman: "I lied to you in good faith."

Yes, America is weary when it takes that as honesty. It is a dreary and scary epitaph for the idea, or the ideal, let alone the reality, of community and commonwealth.

There is a temptation here to wander off into the quicksand of psychohistory. We could, for example, talk about the way that Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter somehow forgot (or never learned) that a Naval Academy graduate is supposed to be a Gentleman (Trustee or Squire), as well as an Officer of the Line. Gentlemen, that is, do not lie. Neither do Artisans or Yeomen. There is something revealing, or at least enticing, about that approach. It does raise the issue of character. The difficulty is that most psychohistory does not confront the question of character.

Even so, let us pursue that possibility. The root meaning of character is "a distinctive mark." It is a "distinctive mark of the personality." Another source says it is "a description of a person's or group's qualities." And finally we learn that it is "an attribute" that defines the nature or disposition of the subject.

Hence psychohistory leads us back to the basic question asked long ago before Freud was born: what is the essence of the American character?

There isn't much of a problem. The mind and body of America are defined, respectively, by the self-constructed revelation that Americans are the City On the Hill to Guide All Mankind, and by the secular theory that endless expansion is the way to achieve happiness and welfare and security forever.

There you have it. That is why America is nostalgic, as well as weary. Both of those ideas are very old - ancient one might even say - and increasing irrelevant to contemporary life on this planet.

It is possible to offer a serious argument in support of the idea that America was once a City On A Hill; even that imperial expansion did benefit many (perhaps most) ordinary citizens, as well as the elite. But the historians and others who advance those propositions are inclined to fudge the evidence and claim that everything worked very nicely until the misadventure in Vietnam. Accept that for the moment. Yet the unseemly, if not indeed pathetic, evacuation of Saigon occurred more than 10 years ago, and since then there have been repeated examples of the irrelevance of the ancient truths. The orthodox analysis fails because it does not explain where, how, and why the received wisdom produced the callous hypocrisy and the blatant lies about Iran and Nicaragua.

Or, to phrase it in a more fundamental way, American culture has been living so long off its intellectual and moral capital that the fund is now exhausted. James Madison made no attempt to hide his upper class elitism and his mistrust of democracy. It did not lie. Indeed, the point is not so much that contemporary American leaders lie to the citizens as it is that they lie to themselves. They refuse to acknowledge that fundamental changes are needed to sustain the American virtues.

There are several foreign policy crises which can be said to mark the moment when the traditional American conception of itself became counterproductive and then increasingly irrelevant. A few commentators might point to the wholly aggressive and imperial war against Mexico (1845-48). It provoked a visceral debate, largely defined by ex-President John Quincy Adams, about the relationship between quasi-democratic republicanism and empire.

More might choose the long and ruthless war (1898-1904) to destroy the independence movement in the Philippines. That could be, and has been, viewed as a preview of Vietnam. Many others would point to President Woodrow Wilson's intervention against the Bolshevik Revolution. For in that situation America was confronted with an articulate alternative conception of the future.

On balance, however, it seems more illuminating to consider domestic events. That takes us back to the end of the Civil War, the closing of the traditional agrarian-commercial continental frontier, and the industrialization and urbanization of a basically agrarian society and culture. Simply put, by the late 1870s, America was ceasing to be unique. The dream and the magic of Arcadia, of Walden Pond, no longer had a basis in reality.

The United States had fought a very long and extremely bloody Civil War. It faced the messy problems of integrating three significant ethnic minorities - the indigenous Americans, the former slaves from Africa, and the new immigrants from central and southeastern Europe - into its largely Anglo-Saxon population. And it confronted the classic social, political, and economic challenges of adapting its traditions and ideals and practices to a new political and social economy.

By all standards, America had become a member of the human race. Finally. That posed a difficult choice. Think about it for a moment in terms of Hesseltine's parameters of the Trustee, the Squire, the Artisan, and the Yeoman. The changes in the political economy implied, indeed demanded, that those idioms of formerly loose communities coming together in temporary coalitions to form a commonwealth had to become institutionalized as self-conscious and disciplined political movements. The new system could not be controlled in a casual manner.

Many people made a serious effort to create that kind of politics: farmers, Blacks, and urban workers. The story of those struggles defines the very best of what is today called "History from the bottom-up." Most of those battles involved the groups that Hesseltine called Artisans and Yeomen; although some Trustees and Squires did comprehend the dangers of trying to project old attitudes and policies into the future through the means of imperialism. They lost.

To understand how and why that happened, we must go beyond Hesseltine's insights and engage one offered by Gore Vidal. Vidal has been busy over many years writing various volumes in what he chooses to call is "biographical history" of the United States. He is shrewd, insightful, knowing about the nature and dynamics of power and does his homework. In his most recent novel (Empire, 1987), Vidal extends Hesseltine's gallery of types to include the Tycoon. He is subtle, using Abraham Lincoln to make his point.

Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal.

The story takes a bit of telling if we are to comprehend Vidal's insight. After being elected as President, Lincoln selected two young and remarkably perceptive men to serve as his private secretaries. One was John G. Nicolay, graced with an unusually keen sense of politics. The other was John Hay, a bit younger politician who also wrote poetry in the idiom of the frontier. The three men developed a most intimate and compatible relationship; and after Lincoln was murdered, Hay and Nicolay wrote 10 revealing volumes about the former President.

John G. Nicolay.
John G. Nicolay.

John Hay.
John Hay.

Thirty years later Hay had become Secretary of State, and Nicolay was dying. Hay was privately deeply troubled by the drive for empire and asked Nicolay for advice. Here is the way that Vidal handles the conversation.

Hay: "The empire we're assembling. Do you think that the Ancient [Lincoln] would approve?"
Nicolay: "The Ancient, no. The Tycoon, yes."

A bit later, Hay returned to the issue in his regular talks with the historian Henry Adams, perhaps now his most trusted friend. Vidal once again.

"Hay himself was not entirely at ease with all the implications of a national policy in which he had, for the most part, cheerfully participated...."
"John, it is empire you all want, and it is empire that you have got, and at such a small price, when you come to think of it."
"'What price is that?'"
"The American republic. You've finally got rid of it. For good.... The republic is dead; long live the empire."
"Oh, dear...." But "we have all the forms of a republic. Isn't that enough? Isn't that everything?"

Unfortunately, Hay was correct. Most of the time most Americans have settled for the forms of a republic while concentrating their energies on being consumers. Thus in America, politics became secondary to the marketplace. Adams understood that the Tycoon had defined the social and political economy. Or, as Nicolay had known, and Hay belatedly realized, Lincoln the Tycoon - the tough, ruthless corporation lawyer for the railroads - had reduced the Republic to an Empire. The Trustee and the Squire, and the Artisan and the Yeoman, had become mere pawns in the imperial game.

Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln did not give a fig for the Niggers. Right to the end, he wanted to ship them off to some other place - back to Africa or to some island. Vidal has it right. Lincoln was a Tycoon. He was determined to transform the republic into an empire. And, you know, if you read him carefully (and watch his actions), you must respect him because he did not lie. An honest imperialist.

And so with the Tycoons.

The Tycoons cared nothing for democracy - let alone a republic. The Tycoon wanted to dominate the marketplace for his profit. For the Tycoon, politics were a matter of economic power. The essence of politics was the manipulation of interest groups. The Tycoon barely comprehended the idea, let alone the ideal, of a community. To the extent that he did, he was largely terrified by the possibility of people coming together to create a different agenda based upon the practice of the common welfare. The Tycoon had no sense of any general welfare. No sense at all of a commonwealth.

Thus the Tycoon takes us back to James Madison (the Squire as Father of the Constitution) and to John Quincy Adams (the Trustee who advocated the secession of the North to create a commonwealth). Madison and the Tycoon were brothers. They feared community; and so frightened became masters of fragmentation. They honored one principle: keep the people from coming together. Read The Federalist Papers No. 10.

Adams believed in community and commonwealth. He scared everyone, even including his great-grandson, the famous historian Henry Adams. Henry could not come to terms with John, and so never finished his biography. Probably the story of American history.

Yes, it is an old story.

That is why America is an old and weary culture. Trying to preserve the past is dingy business. The saddest part of it all is that it renders a once vibrant people frightened of human beings who are trying to realize the ideal of community and commonwealth.