“As long as virtue was dominant in the republic so
long was the happiness of the people secure.”

—Robert E. Lee

John P. Diggins raises various, often profound, questions about the moral foundations of America as a political society. Diggins is fond of calling attention to what he considers the underlying cultural tensions in American history. He discusses, for example, the contradiction between the 18th-century American stress on community (which he regards as part of the Puritan legacy) and the Lockean individualism evident in the Declaration of Independence. He states emphatically that the “rights” celebrated in the Declaration are Lockean natural rights. Moreover, the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” to which the American revolutionaries committed themselves were seen as vested in the individual, not in any historic community. He insists that neither The Federalist nor the Constitution it was written to defend would indicate that Americans were predominantly devout Protestant Christians. Although Joseph Story, Tocqueville, and other observers of early American life were struck by the pervasive piety of the American people, it is hard to infer the presence of popular piety from reading either the Constitution or Madison’s remarks on religious factions in The Federalist papers.

Diggins, who recognizes the gravity of these questions, does not try to discuss them with jerry-built historical explanations. While there may be truth, for example, in the view of, among others, Gordon Wood, that the constitutional convention occurred during a period of religious disenchantment between two great rivals, Diggins recognizes that that cannot be the entire explanation. The most important advocates of the Constitution expounded in their pamphlets a mechanistic view of government. They defended the new Federal structure, by showing in what way it would keep religious and other interests balanced while allowing citizens to pursue their acquisitive impulse. Such arguments are neither classical-pagan nor Judeo-Christian. They arose in the secular, materialistic environment of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It is worth noting that the Constitution’s defenders tried to appeal to a religious people through a politics of interest rather than morality. From the results, the Constitution’s adoption, we may conclude that the appeal of The Federalist‘s authors proved effective.

Diggins provides two general answers to the questions about American character that he raises. First, he recognizes that the contradictions at issue have been endemic to American life for at least two centuries. Americans have tried to overcome them by staking out, in political discourse and in their lives, a middle ground between individual rights and material interest on the one side, and religious and social obligations on the other. Americans have chosen heroes who seem, in some way, to have risen above the contradiction between material right and moral duty.

Significantly, Diggins’ saintly Lincoln illustrates his view of American heroes as bridges between self-interest and duty. His Lincoln has nothing in common with the political realists who placed American Union above the emancipation of Negro slaves, who in 1863 backed Tsarist Russia in crushing an uprising of its Polish subjects, who suspended the right of due process in jailing opponents of the war, and who authorized the devastation of the insurgent South. Although Lincoln’s single-minded, relentless pursuit of wartime objectives may have been necessary to preserve the Union at any price, I for one am tired of attempts to turn America’s Bismarck into a Victorian Christ. Lincoln’s religious rhetoric may help to explain the image of him left to posterity. Calvinist ideas of guilt and redemption were present in Lincoln’s political statements, even when he spoke of the secular, individual rights which the Declaration supposedly guaranteed to whites and Blacks alike. Diggins correctly notes that Lincoln’s appeal to biblical themes allowed him to give the Declaration a broadness of meaning that would have shocked its author, Thomas Jefferson.

Diggins looks for points of intersection between Calvinist religious values and the pursuit of wealth in American culture. He insists (at least in some places) that the recourse to moral arguments on the part of practitioners of the work ethic has not been a mere rationalization for the pursuit of wealth. Americans have felt a genuine, persistent need to harmonize the Protestant biblical heritage with their belief in material things. Diggins does not claim that the American preoccupation with accumulating wealth resulted from Protestant moral concepts. Rather, he stresses the American people’s attempt to justify living in two cultures: one teaching original sin and the need for redemption; and the other glorifying material advancement in a land of opportunity.

Diggins sees “the dignity of work” as a concept by which Americans have tried to harmonize the two cultures. Nineteenth-century Americans could only justify the accumulation of wealth as the fruit of diligent toil freely given. The redemptive value of free labor is a theme sympathetically treated in 19th-century American letters and religious homilies. Those who expounded and absorbed this belief were usually critical of two other social ideals: a plantation system built on servile labor; and the collectivized economy that the socialists preached.

Diggins is willing to ascribe sincerity to political and artistic exponents of the dignity of free labor, he resorts to Marxist methods in explaining why nonintellectuals expressed the same idea. Outside of what he imagines to be a circle of kindred souls anticipating his own mind-set, he assigns no real significance to ideas not dependent on material interests.

He treats Protestant traditionalists as selectively as he does the exponents of the work ethic. Diggins claims to admire the Evangelical Christians of the 1850’s for mobilizing Americans against slavery. He also praises the Puritan component in American culture for raising the sights of a nation of shopkeepers. Yet, Diggins rages against modern Evangelicals, calling them bigots and racists for opposing abortion and gay liberation. Such tirades are unworthy of a serious historian. Does he really believe that Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards would have been less critical of the counterculture than Jerry Falwell? Does he think that Calvinist Abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan or Black Southern Baptists of 40 years ago would have been less “bigoted” about radical life-styles than the Southern Baptist Convention?

Diggins should and does know better. At his best he is a perceptive intellectual historian, at home in the world of ideas. I myself am indebted to his critical understanding of the American conservatism of the 1950’s. Unlike James Henretta, Gerda Lerner, and other protesting historians, Diggins has not achieved recognition by sneering at established social morality—or by blasting the capitalist system that pampers its despisers. Despite his toeing of the party line, he has not progressed professionally as far as he could have, had he been a more strident radical and a less scrupulous scholar. Perhaps a bit of friendly criticism may encourage him to abandon the 60’s entirely. As one graying historian to another, I urge him to find new sources of inspiration and to stop searching for the living among the mentally dead.


[The Lost Soul of American Politics, John Patrick Diggins; Basic Books; New York]