03 March 2008

Fundamental Questions: Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson’s majestic A History of the American People (1997) purports to address three fundamental questions. These questions concern expiation of national sins, the balance of moral ideals and practical needs, and a sense of national mission. Rooted in these questions are fundamental assumptions.

Expiation of Sins

Johnson assumes that taking possession of the North American continent proceeded through injustice to its indigenous inhabitants. He also assumes that American self-sufficiency was rendered possible through the suffering of enslaved labor. These assumptions are well-supported historical generalizations, although some balk at their expression. In a dissenting opinion, for example, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist deployed the moniker “revisionist history” as a pejorative description of specific allegations of injustice towards the Lakota and other Native peoples of the northern Plains.

I think the Court today rejects that conclusion largely on the basis of a view of the settlement of the American West which is not universally shared. There were undoubtedly greed, cupidity, and other less-than-admirable tactics employed by the Government … but the Indians did not lack their share of villainy either. It seems to me quite unfair to judge by the light of “revisionist” historians or the mores of another era actions that were taken under pressure of time more than a century ago.
U.S. v. Sioux Nation 448 U. S. 371, at 435

More recently, Michael Medved has suggested that there was little out of the ordinary in the American institution of slavery, expiating the sins (as Johnson would have it) by noting that all have sinned. Medved’s distortions are well enough exposed by Timothy Burke that there is no need to rehash them here.

The point is that such exceptions as Rehnquist and Medved stem from a handful of ideologues that cling to a peculiar conservatism; these do not negate Johnson’s assumption in his first question. Has the United States “expiated its organic sins” (3)?

Moral Ideals and Practical Realities

Johnson’s first question, he suggests, logically leads to the second. Has the United States found the correct mix of “ideals and altruism” with “acquisitiveness and ambition” (3)? Despite origins in “sin,” the United States is steeped in the eighteenth century ideals of liberty and equality. It is true that it was formed by merchants and planters that intended their government to protect property and commerce. Competing self-interest was the necessary “hidden hand” behind healthy economic growth, according to a leading theory of the day. But, did the society created by these American colonials become one in which “righteousness has the edge over the needful self-interest” (3)?

Johnson seems to suggest that if the balance is right, the sins of dispossession and slavery are expiated.

Sense of Mission

The third question ties together the first two. Has the “republic of the people,” rooted in “an other worldly ‘City on a Hill’,” proven “to be a model for the entire planet” (3)? The notion of racism as a national sin reveals a secular application of religious themes. The third question reveals the heart of this trope. From its origins in Puritan New England, as expressed by Cotton Mather (quoted in “From Chiasmus to Columbus”) and his predecessors, the sense of divine mission became secularized.

The Puritan settlers that debarked from the Arbella in 1630 began in congregation as hearers of John Winthrop’s seminal sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In this sermon, Winthrop referenced Matthew 5:14 in a line that has become one of the most frequently repeated sentiments in American rhetoric. The twin notions that America is an example to the world, and that God is the protector of this nation get invoked with regularity in public discourse. An old book sitting on my shelf explains the theme.

Every President, from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson, has included in his inaugural address one or more references to his and the nation’s dependence upon God. These statements have become the documented and lasting records of the religious expressions of our presidents.
Benjamin Weiss, God in American History, 47.

Johnson was President when Weiss published his book in 1966, but subsequent Presidents have not deviated from the pattern. Some, to be certain, sound more like preachers than others. Historiann pointed out in reply to my article “A City on Hill” in January that Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Speech must be remembered in this context.

The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
Reagan, “Farewell Address”

Of course, Winthrop was a Puritan, not one of the early Pilgrims that came ten years earlier. One benefit of living through the Eighties with a keen ear and a sense of the past is freedom from all expectations that President Reagan would ever be correct in his summary of historical particulars. Nevertheless, the larger sentiments he expressed were shared by enough shakers and movers that the erroneous details are insignificant.

Despite the omnipresence of God in such rhetoric, the question Johnson asks assumes that this sense of mission became secular. It has not become thus without considerable resistance from true believers, so some confusion remains. Earlier in his address, Reagan emphasized the core values.

Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
Reagan, “Farewell Address”

One gets the impression from Paul Johnson’s beginning that his final answers to all three questions are affirmative.

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