The standard opinion has it that, ever since they set foot on the new continent, the English settlers felt they were one people, Englishmen united by their common language, common origins, common enemies, so that it was only natural that their independence, once achieved, should lead them to the framing of one new national body, the first new nation, or first republic, of modern times. Such a view, however, represents in my mind a complete misapprehension.
In spite of the settlers’ common origins and roughly similar social backgrounds (none of them was from the dregs of society), these men were of two main stocks, doomed to an irrepressible antagonism because their dissent did not stem from a mere clash of interests, industrial as opposed to agricultural ones, that could have been complementary (as even Calhoun thought they could be in the 1830’s). Between them was a much deeper chasm—i.e., the existence of two basic inspirations, mind-sets, Weltanschauungen that could not possibly coexist within a purportedly single whole. Let us attempt a rough sketch of those two basic spirits.
English immigrants had many reasons, but two of them were predominant: a religious one for the Puritans in New England, and in Virginia an economic one for the first settlers, then a political one for the Cavaliers. Even though these two groups did not represent the whole body of immigrants, they were the two prevailing brands in terms of their intellectual, social, and moral leadership, not to mention the future course of American history. Around them coalesced the rest of the newcomers.
Puritans were—or claimed to be—strict Calvinists, intent on making their faith the guiding principle of a new city on a hill. Hence several behavioral traits.
Max Weber was wrong when he pictured Calvinists as devoured by anxiety and intent on making money in order to rest assured they were God’s elect. Perusing the Mayflower Compact or Governor Winthrop’s pep talk, both delivered and signed on the bridges of their respective ships, it is difficult not to perceive how confident they were that theirs was a worthy mission, if ever there was one, so conforming to the will of God that the eyes of the world must be upon them. (A century later Jonathan Edwards would castigate their pride.) The essential trademark of a pure Calvinist may well be his good conscience, a harbinger of religious intolerance and a secret propensity to consider Calvinist opinions and policies the ones that should be Everyman’s.
Confident as they were in themselves, the Puritans nevertheless asserted that man, being a sinner throughout, could not possibly penetrate the absolute transcendence of God (their main argument against the papists). But their pessimism is again misunderstood. It did not mean to them that they were doomed to wander in the dark, but only that they had to rely exclusively on themselves to steer their lives, which paradoxically led them, on one hand, to trust their natural faculties—notably their reason—and, on the other, to deny nature could hold a divine message man could read and revere. Wittingly or not, their pessimism was fraught with a typically modern Promethean mind-set: It was natural for man to treat nature as man saw best. No wonder the Northeast was the birthplace of industrial America, the breeding ground of Yankee ingenuity and engineering, the land of philosophical pragmatism, and the springboard of a spirit of enterprise: New England soil may not have been ideal for agriculture, but this fact would have been negligible, had it not been for the Calvinist mentality.
Since all men were utter sinners, how could they be worthy of mere amicitia, barring love? Remember Calvin preached to love one’s wife not because she was lovable but because it was God’s will that men marry; Calvinist pessimism precludes natural sociability. All society results from a more or less explicit contract (like the Pilgrims’), to which each citizen freely consents because each needs protection from others (men are evil) who, nonetheless, may be useful to one another. Hobbes was a good if unwitting Calvinist when he depicted society as a market catering to lone individuals exchanging goods and services, and in need of a stern sheriff to punish cheaters. That is why the typical Calvinist was a merchant or a banker, and the typical Calvinist aristocracy one of paper and patronage, to use John Taylor of Caroline’s words.
There could not be a world more alien to the spirit that united the Southern states.
Indeed, though of different social status and religious denominations, those men who settled on the East Coast, from Virginia southward, had this in common: They valued land over money, the products of the land they tilled over profit made on customers or debtors. They were not capitalists but farmers—gentlemen farmers in the European tradition—for whom what made a man and a good citizen was ownership of some land off which to live. And from the soil oozes a spirit that permeates the men who live off it, and induces a particular perception of life.
The bond with the land makes for an original religiosity, quasi-instinctive and somehow unarticulated, as different as can be from the Puritans’ religion. A farmer’s is naturally nurtured by the daily bounties provided by nature to men who know how to respect her laws: It is to the farmer’s ever-renewed wonder that one bushel of seed properly sown will expand to one hundred by harvest time. Far from the world being clay that man may shape at will, the farmer’s field is to him a living organism given to immutable cycles spontaneously suggesting the whole universe is itself a benevolent and awe-inspiring organism ruled by some Providence beyond the realm of human reason, but deserving man’s reverence.
Hence a basic abhorrence to laying too heavy a hand on Mother Nature as if she were clay to be molded rather than a mother nursing her children—which does not imply it is unnatural for man to lord over nature, but only that he should treat her rather like a person than like a thing. The farmer’s devotion to land breeds a natural hostility to any Promethean mind-set, including industrialism, whether under the form of an obsessive production of standardized goods or the industrialization of agriculture. (Whitney’s cotton gin merely helps to harvest cotton but is no means to tamper with the soil in order to increase natural productivity.)
The same devotion to land makes for an aversion to mercantilism—i.e., commerce as a full-time profession. The rationale for such aversion is dual. On one hand, as Aristotle and, much later, the Physiocrats argued, the farmer is a man who lives off his own labor and the generosity of nature, while the trader lives on the profit he makes off others (the people he buys from and the people he sells to), and the banker off the debtor laboring to pay his debt. On the other hand, as Jefferson argued, only the farmer is a free man, because he depends neither on suppliers, nor on customers; a country is free when its citizens love freedom, and only he who depends solely on the land he owns can be free.
Whereas Puritanism makes for strictly utilitarian social relationships, strong bonding to the land makes for a spontaneous sense of community. It is indeed a simple eternal fact that from the soil emanates a spirit which, wittingly or not, men treading the thick clay of their fields inhale every day, and which is a spirit of brotherhood. For true farmers are, whatever their individualism, all raised on nature’s milk, all sons of a mother equally precious to all, all attached to a soil they all possess in common even though each owns only a share of it. Moreover, a man who tills and lives off the land he owns is inescapably given to understand that his labor merely helps nature to give birth to the corn she had been secretly nurturing ever since he sowed it. He is naturally induced to feeling he has merely a role in an eternally performed play written by a nonhuman Writer over Whom no man can have control. There is a sort of built-in humility among farmers, none of whom would ever imagine himself to be a self-made man. And this constitutes a natural predisposition to live not merely in a society, but in a naturally organized society (first in the household, then in a society resulting from a spontaneous confederation of different households).
Being rooted in the soil induces still another opposition to the Puritan mentality. No two fields are identical, and no two provinces look alike: The farmer knows no parcel of land should be treated as equivalent to the next. (Two great wines, and very different, are often separated by the mere width of a narrow road.) Then, while the farmer may be proud of his land and prefer it to others, nothing is more remote from his mind-set than the Puritans’ claim that their city is on a hill for all men to admire and imitate, and nothing more foreign than to wage war in order to impose his particular way of life. Farmers are patriots who will defend their land when attacked; they are not imperialists making the world safe for their investments.
“Remember money breeds money, which in its turn brings more,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. If these two attitudes may be considered the respective mainstream philosophies of the North and the South, then it becomes obvious there can be no way to blend the two into a single national spirit any more than Cain could live by Abel’s side. “We the people,” as famous a phrase as it may be, is a dupery. Understanding it as such seems to me the key to the history of the United States both before and after 1865.
When the American colonists started debating their merging into a single political unit, the obviously central issue was that of states’ rights—i.e., what sovereignty would be left to the states once a federal power, endowed with a sovereignty of its own, had been established. Since none of their representatives appears to have called for the states to forfeit their sovereignty entirely, it seems obvious that the new union, if tighter than the one obtaining under the Articles of Confederation, was nevertheless to be that of a federation in which the federal power was rigorously construed, strictly limited, and states’ rights sternly asserted.
Such a view was never unanimous. The Federalists, men of the North already, opposed it immediately (hence the Tenth Amendment) and never relented until they overcame at the price of open war. In between they had constantly waged one by other means, kindling the fires of conflict with self-interested issues (internal improvements, tariffs, a central bank), the last of which was the rather contrived issue of slavery. (The South ended up fighting as one man while only a fourth of Southern households actually owned slaves, and what they fought for was not slavery, but their right granted by the Constitution to do away with it in their own time. As for the Yankees, once victorious they abandoned the freed slaves to a rather dubious fate.) The war, a cultural and even philosophical one, was actually a protracted affair that started in 1787 and came to a head when the Yankees began to covet the control of an opening West.
So the fateful war was fought, and union was proclaimed to have been restored. A scurrilous claim: It is symbolic that the South could be reinstated as a member of the Union only after a team of Northern generals had razed it. The new union, instead of resulting from the regulated intercourse of political bodies, was forced down the throats of half of them, and the unity prevailing between Americans became that which obtains between colonizers and colonized. Lincoln showed himself to be a faithful disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s method for regenerating France: “to prevent the union from being an empty word, it must be disposed that whoever is rebellious to the people’s will must be forced to obey it, which only means forcing him to be free.” From such deviousness was born a new type of nation, indeed.
Although the Constitution of 1787 was not subjected to a complete overhaul, it was dealt a blow that was actually lethal, though not immediately: It took some time for the passengers on the Titanic to realize their ship was sinking. What can be the everlasting value, the enduring legitimacy of an agreement that is not free anymore but enforced by sheer violence upon some of its partners, who had rejected it upon the unassailable grounds that its original terms had been ignored? An unconstitutional constitution is no bond unless shackles may be considered a bond. But then again, isn’t that orthodox Puritan self-confidence? Might makes right, because human deeds, when successful, are signs of God’s will.
The use of violence to impose the Constitution having set a precedent, a spirit of reverence for the use of force and a propensity to condone the power it conferred progressively contaminated a country henceforth dominated by the heirs of Sherman et al. It is as if the North’s victory over the Southern heathens allowed the Puritan good conscience to achieve its own propensities. Initially boosted by the golden opportunity of expansion into the West, the new spirit blossomed and spread throughout its new empire, claiming as its manifest destiny a right to conquer land, master nature, acquire riches, and, in a word, become as mighty as possible. As of 1865 the ghost of Calvin fathered a passion for strenuous living, rugged individualism, unfettered private enterprise, and general Ayn Randism. Whereupon prevailed a kind of unsociable sociability, cloaked in the cold rationality naturally prevalent among individuals who look upon one another not as friends or fellowmen, but as potential prey, partners, or rivals. America, claiming to be united, became a land of opportunity, which actually meant one vast jungle whose supreme law was force, where the average citizen was bound to obey the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest.
As not everyone was equally fit for the fight, the jungle quickly evolved into a soviet-style society divided between apparatchiks and muzhik. At the top, a revolving oligarchy of strongmen, more or less invisible owners or managers of vast amounts of money, providers of mass-produced cheap goods, endowed with the means to fund brainwashing and vote-rigging machines (the press and the political parties) so as to rule over the country. And, far below, the uniform mass of tame sheep, the lonely crowd of isolated wage-earning consumers, zombies put to sleep by an instilled passion for consumer goods and the ever-replayed lullaby: This government is one “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The final touch was, all too naturally, the maturing of the very ambition old Virginians like Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe had warned Americans never to nurture: the ambition inherent in the Puritan dream to build a city on a hill, the imperialistic ambition to teach the world how it ought to behave.
Eighteen sixty-five is the year when the disunited states of America started the process of becoming a modern nation throughout. Had he been able to behold the revolution the Civil War was to entail, Edmund Burke would have exclaimed, “the age of chivalry is gone, that of sophists, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of America is extinguished forever.” But don’t be disheartened, good American citizens: You are the vanguard of the West.