“I am told thee has been dancing with the queen.
I do hope, my son, thee will not marry out of meeting.”
—American Quaker mother in a letter to her son following the Coronation Ball in 1838
Here are three very excellent books, two on the subject of America, the third substantially so. One of the three authors is an Englishman who has spent many years in the United States, another an American who has lived long in England. The third, a native of Hungary, is an adoptive American since the age of 22. These books may—indeed, should—be read together as thematically related works, and so I have decided to review them that way. (Significantly, all three are published by Yale University Press.) For my purpose, the keys to understanding the relationship are offered by the first-listed volume, John Lukacs’s Last Rites: a sequel to, or extension of, his “auto-history” of 20 years ago, Confessions of an Original Sinner, intended “not [as] a history of my life [but] . . . a history of my thoughts and beliefs,” and published when the historian was in his 66th year.
Lukacs has argued for decades against the notion of mechanical causation, insisting that human intelligence intrudes into and complicates the structure of historical events. “To this,” he writes in the first chapter of his new book,
let me add my own conclusion: that this relationship, this intrusion of Mind into Matter is not constant; that perhaps the evolution of human consciousness may be the only evolution there is: and that in this age of democracy this intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase.
Two pages on, he adds:
It took me, an antimaterialist idealist, perhaps forty or fifty years to recognize, suddenly, that people do not have ideas: they choose them. And how and why and when (important, that!) they choose them: ah! There is the crux of the matter, of men’s predicaments, of their destinies, of history.
These two quotations, to my mind, supply the text for both Godfrey Hodgson’s much-needed assertion of the unexceptional nature of American history and Frank Prochaska’s absorbing account of the American people’s paradoxical fascination with the British monarchy and British royalty, from prerevolutionary times all the way down to the present day.
Last Rites is an impressionistic volume, but it is not a pastiche. It has order and structure, yet neither structure nor order seems inevitable. The first chapter, “A Bad Fifteen Minutes” (“Un mauvais quart d’heure,” as the French say), outlines what Lukacs, working from Heisenberg, calls “a new architecture of humanism,” which he summarizes as follows:
The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because at the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, explore it, study it. This insistence on the centrality, and on the uniqueness of human beings is a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.
In the following chapter, Lukacs explains—not, it seems to me, entirely with success—why he chose to begin his new autohistory with the philosophical essay that precedes it. But he pointedly—and poignantly—quotes Georges Bernanos, who wrote that “a civilization disappears with the kind of man, the type of humanity, that has issued from it.” Lukacs adds, with mild defiance, that he, at least, has not wholly disappeared: “I live still.” For the rest, Last Rites is a sort of last testament by a survivor of the Modern (he prefers “Bourgeois”) Age, ending not on a note of despair but rather with an appeal to the reader “to turn toward the past, and dip into its records and remnants, for inspiration.” Contrary to prevailing opinion, Lukacs believes, the fear of the future and of “progress” will grow—and with it respect for the past, the artistic accomplishments of the 500 years of the now-ended Bourgeois Age especially.
And over and beyond respect, there must be gratitude—“gratitude: it comes always from the past.” Indeed, Last Rites is, more than anything else, an act of, an exercise in, gratitude: gratitude for the author’s adoptive country, even though that country no longer exists; gratitude for his vocation, his work, and the circumstances that made them possible; gratitude to his three American wives (Hungary, he says, is his mother; America his wife); gratitude for a long life lived in good health; gratitude, finally, to God, “for both my past and my present.” Last Rites is a moving, beautifully written, and highly original Ave atque vale, a fitting capstone to the earlier, and much longer, Confessions.
Godfrey Hodgson, a British academic and journalist with a keen and long-standing interest in the United States, explains in the Preface to The Myth of American Exceptionalism that the book has its origins in his perception, commencing in the 1980’s and 90’s, of a newly aggressive and hubristic attitude on the part of the American leadership class that had combined with a boastfulness and self-adulation demanding uncritical admiration from the rest of the world. Turning the matter over in his mind, Hodgson found himself speculating whether this unwelcome attitude might not be explained by “a corruption of the doctrine that is called American exceptionalism,” the insistence that American history is the record of the exceptional virtue of a people and the nation they founded late in the 18th century. Hodgson believes the exceptionalist view to be “not wholly untrue.” However,
important truths have been left out. In particular, an exceptionalist tradition has exaggerated the differences, the solipsistic character of American history. The uniqueness of the American political tradition has been overstressed. The values that have been derived from and are still shared with Europe have been underestimated. The sheer historical connections between America and the rest of the world have been wiped from the slate.
What Godfrey Hodgson has to say has needed saying for a long time, and it is a very good thing indeed that he is saying it now.
The Puritans, he reminds us, were not cockeyed American optimists seeking to create a great nation with a mission to reform and redeem the world. They were English sectarians looking for a remote home where they could practice their religion free of persecution by the crown and the Church of England. Similarly, Crèvecoeur was not a “new man” but a French aristocrat who eventually returned to live on his ancestral demesne in France. More fundamentally, the American “revolutionists” justified their “revolution” by reference to wholly European principles developed over the centuries during the English Revolution and the English, Scots, and French Enlightenments, and incorporated into the English Common Law. Before 1865, most Americans were descended from British stock; before 1965, most were of European ancestry. On his visit to the United States in 1831-32, Tocqueville conceived his well-known axiom that the character of a people is more important than its institutions. Other visitors to America, chiefly from the British Isles, during the same period noted that Americans remained essentially British, albeit Britons of a ruder type. That changed following the War Between the States, and by century’s end Americans of German-American ancestry had become the majority population in the United States. (Of course, in 1900 the reigning British monarch was the half-German widow of a German prince, and the prince of Wales three-quarters-German.)
So what explains the myth of American exceptionalism? John Lukacs has already given us the answer: Americans, confusing their new constitutional government with a society already two centuries old, chose to understand America as an exception among nations, the product of immaculate conception rather than of messy historical process. A caveat here: Lukacs argues in Rites, as he has many times elsewhere, that what happens in history is what people think happens. In the case of American exceptionalism, that is clearly not the case. Wishing something to be true is not the same thing as making it so. Hodgson is surely correct in suggesting that, to the degree America ever was exceptional, she answered to that description during the relatively idyllic period between the Revolution and the Age of Jackson, when Americans really did experience something like political and economic equality. But with incipient industrialism and the formation of an urban working class, that, too, began to change. After the war between North and South the United States came quickly to approximate the nations of Europe, as headlong industrialization produced the same social stratification, economic inequality, and class warfare that characterized Old World societies. America’s will to empire, emerging around the turn of the 20th century, hastened and completed the convergence between Old World and New. As for the new century, Hodgson argues, the history of the United States in the years between 1900 and 1950 was “exceptional” only for the country’s having been spared foreign invasion and widespread destruction of the homeland in World Wars I and II. So far from emerging from these conflicts with her economy in ruins, which was the fate of the European powers and of Japan, the United States actually realized a profit from Professor Wilson’s War To Make the World Safe for Democracy, and wrested economic domination on a global scale from the successor conflict.
The weakness of Godfrey Hodgson’s thesis lies in the author’s misapprehension that America’s exceptionalist belligerency is a recent phenomenon of the last 20 years or so. In fact, it is traceable as far back as the War Between the States, and even the Mexican-American War. The exceptionalist doctrine that Hodgson deplores is really an ideologized version of a popular, formerly diffused American conceit, refurbished by the neoconservatives for the purpose of maximizing national power and influence to ends well understood by Bertrand de Jouvenel (also, for the perceived benefit of a small client state in the Middle East). As such, it offers an excellent example of what John Lukacs calls the accelerated intrusion of mind into matter in modern democracies.
In The Eagle & the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy, Frank Prochaska has written the history of an apparent paradox that, in the context of Lukacs’s and Hodgson’s books, appears not so paradoxical after all. “For all their egalitarian principles,” Prochaska writes,
many Americans have been highly susceptible to the transcendent glamour of hereditary kingship—what has been called “a family on the throne”—and find little contradiction in saluting the stars and stripes one moment and bowing to the British sovereign the next.
This susceptibility traces (un-sur-prisingly) to colonial times, when Benjamin Franklin detoured from the Low Countries to London in September 1761 to witness the coronation of King George III (whose reign he predicted would be “happy and glorious”), down to the present day, when Princess Diana is revered in the United States as a secular saint. The founding generation was far more sympathetic to monarchy than their calculated denunciations of the king suggested. John Adams believed that “Americans are particularly unfit for any Republic but the Aristo-Democratical Monarchy.” Thomas Paine considered Louis XVI a progressive agent, a “republican monarch,” and thought a kingly sovereign to be compatible with republican government. George Bancroft wrote in his History of the United States,
Neither Franklin, nor Washington, nor John Adams, nor Jefferson, nor Jay had ever expressed a preference for a republic. The voices that rose for independence, spoke also for alliances with kings. The sovereignty of George the Third was renounced, not because he was a king, but because he was deemed a tyrant.
The men who drafted the United States Constitution had paid little attention, Prochaska asserts, to the long struggle between King George and his ministers, which ended in a significant reduction of the royal power. Perhaps from neglect of this development, the Founding Fathers devised a plan of government that granted a good deal more power to the president of the United States than the contemporary king of England enjoyed. Indeed, many 19th-century observers (including Walter Bagehot) on both sides of the Atlantic concluded that the United States was an elective monarchy disguised as a republic, while Great Britain had become a republic concealed by the elaborate dress of monarchy.
As early as 1793, the year of the regicide in Paris, Americans had laid aside much of their antipathy to George III, whose death in 1820 provoked considerable sympathy in the former colonies. When Tocqueville visited America, he noted that
One scarcely encounters an American who does not want to owe something of his birth to the first founders of the colonies, and as for offshoots of the great families, America seemed to me to be entirely covered with them.
In the Jacksonian Era, egalitarianism and universal suffrage induced second thoughts about democracy on the part of upper-class and cosmopolitan Americans. But it was the ascension of Victoria to the British throne in 1838 that produced a monarchical “fever” in America that was to reach its apogee in the reign of Edward VII, coinciding with the heyday of the plutocracy in the United States. But Victoria’s appeal had been of a different sort from Edward’s. “The Queen’s genius,” Prochaska writes,
was to enhance the monarch as a symbol of constitutional rectitude, while associating royalty with the prevailing middle-class sentiments of the age. Her religious upbringing accommodated the pieties of the day, and she identified with the practical morality that was such a feature of the mid-nineteenth century in both Britain and America.
Following the Great War, American passion for the royals entered upon a slow decline, owing in part to the fact that Americans descended from British stock were no longer the majority of the people. Still, the duke and duchess of Windsor, both before and after the abdication, were great favorites in this country, and King George V’s and Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to the United States in 1939 (the first by a sitting monarch) was a major national event. So was Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. By the time of the prince of Wales’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, however, American enthusiasm for the royal family had been largely compromised by the cult of international celebrity, to which the phenomenon of Princess Dimania may be more realistically attributed.
American exceptionalism has been insufficiently exceptional to withstand the ages-old fascination of royalty. Franklin believed that “there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government” (an impulse that Hilaire Belloc attributed to “man’s instinct for worship”). John Adams thought that “Limited monarchy is found in Nature.” Bagehot suggested that:
Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting actions. Accordingly, so long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, Royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to understanding.
Is monarchy a preference innate to human beings, or are monarchical sentiments ones that people—including the American people—are free to choose, as they are free equally to choose democratic pieties? The answer may be discoverable in another of John Lukacs’s idées fixes: the “split-mindedness” of human beings, an insight which, as it happens, splits in two Walter Bagehot’s above-quoted observation. It is common to humanity to think one thing and to feel another—even to think one thing and another, at the same time. This is but one reason why Lukacs insists (in Last Rites) that,
There is only one kind of knowledge, human knowledge, with the inevitability of its participation, with the inevitable relationship of the knower to the known, of what and how and why and when man knows and wishes to know.
[Last Rites, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 187 pp., $25.00]
[The Myth of American Exceptionalism, by Godfrey Hodgson (New Haven: Yale University Press) 221 pp., $26.00]
[The Eagle & the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy, by Frank Prochaska (New Haven: Yale University Press) 239 pp., $40.00]