American the Exceptional, Part 2: Teaching History

By Dan Snyder

On recent a trip to Washington, D.C., what struck me was not a reflection of the commonality of our republican center of government, but the authority of wealth.   While cities throughout the land mostly feature the same tropes, the shuttered and abandoned ex-WalMart malls, the purposeless main-streets and pitiable ‘historic districts’, hopeful but ignored ‘convention centers’ and vacant lots called industrial parks, the city squatting on the Potomac is a skyline of construction cranes, sleek office buildings, and of course burgeoning monumentalism.  Palpable wealth boasts its presence to anyone, and in particular anyone visiting from what some may call ‘fly over country,’  Reflecting on wealth, we may not disdain it outright, but may question what the love of money has wrought.

On one hand, the prosperity of the nation, our nation, is undeniable and an historical monument itself to the truly progressive story of the history of the West. In another sense, however, the coagulation of that wealth and prosperity over time into the centripetal core of the national capital and the expansion of a class of federal employees and consultants resembles a collapse inward, like the implosion of a star.  Further, the ‘falling in’ of wealth and power is an oft-repeated theme of the history of man not to be mistaken for true progress.  The effect is not salutary, although perhaps inevitable, and wherever it has been encountered by those who desired intellectual freedom and the free exercise of conscience, it has been resisted.  Reflecting on the story of Cain and Abel, we may remind ourselves of the agricultural, and therefore cultivated custodian of process named Cain, and the nomadic tender of the herd and therefore wandering Abel.  From that time to the conflict of the ‘Cowman and the Farmer’ in the mid twentieth century American musical Oklahoma, the confrontation of the centralist and the independent has loomed over decisions concerning the dwelling together of humanity.

Post European enlightenment liberality considers the perfection of processes and predictability located in central governments the essence of historical goals.  At the other ideological end of this dialectic, the libertarian perspective would be that complete independence to the greatest degree possible is to be desired.  More interesting, perhaps, comes the question as to whether the progress of centralization can actually be avoided at all short of inevitable catastrophe, or whether that movement does mimic the end of history if not its particular occurrence.  Put another way is this pessimism concerning constant gathering of power by the few always a sign of collapse, or will it, because of its inevitability dating to the dawn of recorded man in instances like the tower of Babel, eventually be consummated in a union of power and goodness reaching the end, or purpose, of history.

A teacher of literature and history should distinguish between material cause and final cause in teaching history if that teacher believe in three things: the power of natural causation, the independent action of man, and providence. If not, a teacher should limit their concerns to material causes, since the action of man is restricted to the material universe, and God, if he exists at all, is part of the same universe.  Speaking for myself, I feel free to consider the envelope as well as the contents of history, and so can ask “in what relation to material causes did America enjoy freedom and prosperity at the same time?”  We ask then “in what way does this differ from or maintain the arc of history as we observe it?” It is also well to wonder “What should be done with the freedoms and influence remaining to us, as students of and participants in history?”

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat traveling America in the early nineteenth century was observing the republican experiment underway, recording his observations in his justly treasured Democracy in America.  With a wary eye toward democracy that came from his experience of the arguably disastrous, and certainly disruptive, French revolution, he applied his curiosity to the placid and prosperous reality of the American polis.  Edmund Burke had earlier predicted many of the ills to befall the people of France as they fought their way from under the economic disaster of Louis XV’s attempts to right the mega monarchy, once the colossus of Europe but then staggering under centuries of war debt and taxes.  The French, almost unwittingly, opened the door to democracy in order to relieve the taxes placed on the third estate, or most poor of the population, and let in the accompanying egalitarianism that was to characterize the revolution.  Egalitarianism, according to Burke forecasting from England, crazily exalted the ignorant above the wise due to the wave of populism that swept all before it, therefore committing a sin against what should be conserved—namely, excellence. Humbuggery, and eventually terror did indeed follow.  To the French, recently watching the success of the American revolution against the unfair taxation of Burke’s parliament, the future seemed bright.  What followed in the days of de Tocqueville’s France was not.

What, according to de Tocqueville, was the difference of the American experience.  How was democracy in its worst excesses checked?  Simply, the virtue of the people due to their inherited culture served as a check on human nature.  Some of this political virtue had been imported from the English experience of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, another reflection of Burke’s.   Another discovery accompanied this.  In contrast to France, most American government was held at the local level, where the leaders of communities, counties, and townships exercises oversight of the necessary tasks of law, mutual defense, and the commons was understood as something more like a town than a nation.  France had merely changed the executive power in its revolution but had left unchanged the arrondissement, or departmental system of the monarchic predecessor.  Power and money stayed put in France; it just passed through democratically elected hands.   Teachers do well to include this book, Democracy in America, as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in their students’ readings.  So much for the material causes of prosperity and felicity in early nineteenth century America.

History introduces novelties, and we may well wonder about the strangeness or sameness of the contrast here represented, France and America, in the period of the Enlightenment.  Thinking about Demosthenes the Athenian in his relation to the Macedonian enterprise of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II of Macedon, gives an insight concerning the swells and waves of history.  We will consider the arc of history and providence.

Like America at its best, the classical period of the Greeks is a source of virtuous thought and literature.  Ask this; “Why did the classical period end?”  Of course this is an artificial construct, or an envelope for history that packages the great literature and history of Greece within a century, roughly from 500 BC to 400 BC.  This period represents the result of a longer period of distributed autonomy amongst small cities or states executing government locally, perhaps because of geographic constraints or ideological incompatibility, resulting in a fruitful virtual laboratory of governance. Following this period, the rise of the Macedonians, who valued being Greek not for the ethics of the Greek, but for the romance of tribal memory, overshadowed the independence of the Greek cities by binding them all into a league.   This ‘league’ was a thinly disguised empire, as the centripetal effects of centralization came into effect, coalescing around the most militarily effective technicians, namely the army of Philip II and his descendent Alexander in their adventures contra the Persians.  The world became Hellenized, but the sparkle of thought and independence waned.  Alexander himself dismayed his generals in the fabulous city of the conquered Babylon.  The unimaginable wealth of the highly centralized Persian Empire now at his command, Alexander became an emperor himself, merely taking the throne of an existing government machine, placing the Macedonian League and therefore all Greeks under this new structure.   Demosthenes, a more libertarian and Athenian voice, agitated throughout for a return to the freedom of the Greek cities, but this proved futile and fatal for the famous orator.

Demosthenes becomes an example of a rhetorician in love with power as long as it is near him, but a conservative of the local liberty type at that, inciting revolution because of the justice of a government by Athenians for Athenians.  His ‘Philippic’ mode of rhetorical condemnation urging a return to Athenian independence and more, the general independence of all Greek cities, makes him a hunted man for the circular reason that his goal would thwart the power capable of stopping him. It seems the tide was, and perhaps is, inevitable. Readings in Plutarch, namely the lives of Alexander and Demosthenes, will give insight as to the lure of destiny that presses down against the freedom of the wanderer, gathering all wills to one. Can this trend be resisted?  Should the trend be fiercely fought? We have seen that the Americans saw themselves as blessed, and de Tocqueville agreed while they maintained the equipoise of distributed government and freedom. Americans now seem to favor a democracy that has a center, that center being a collection of normative institutions filled with career power managers, yet some are not convinced. Is it possible to make the clock move backward?

Alexander’s legacy in the form of the Seleucid Empire was once resisted by the outliers.  Jerusalem in the time of the Maccabees became the testing of defining peace as a type of acquiescence.  Antiochus IV Epiphanes, thwarted in his conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt by the intervention of the growing Roman Empire turned his disappointment upon the Jews.  He proposed a general Hellenization, ostensibly for the purpose of prosperity.  This entailed ‘standardizing’ the temple in Jerusalem to be more compliant with the global reality of the day, introducing public baths and gladiatorial contests, and generally leveraging the cultural supremacy of what we today call classicism.  Of course, this program would oppose the history and reality of the Jews, or at least some who chose to resist violently.  While some of the Jews chose to seek office under the new regime, the Maccabees organized themselves and went to war. In the subsequent fighting, the Jewish nation survived as an independent entity as the Seleucids collapsed, ceding their place to the Romans. The Maccabean victory, however, was not to last. The Romans, a more centrist and administratively competent power than had yet appeared were to take Judea into their empire. Rebellions by the Jews against this central global authority resulted this time in the fiery destruction of the capitol and the temple. While the movements of time seem to feature moments of humanity unencumbered by the weight of dominating political apparatus, these times have been momentary exceptions.

The great advantage that was providentially supplied to American migrants was the lack of any social history of power centers in the new land.  We often congratulate ourselves on our constitution, forgetting that many political theorists stretching back to the beginnings of written reflection on this problem formulated solutions that could not be implemented without violence, and would require ‘erasing’ the residue of ages. What if people had a choice? What if you could ‘vote with your feet’ and move to a place less concerned with hereditary order? Could the knowledge of the Old World be transmitted to the New without its accompanying weakness and long running conspiracy?

The virgin land of the Americas was indeed the ‘New World’, one that seems to be aging more rapidly than one would suppose possible.  Setting aside the complicated relationship of Europeans with the aboriginals scattered about the continent, a topic needing a more thorough treatment, we see a novelty in history. A place appeared on the map without overlords built from the middle out, settlers with a culture of private and corporate virtue interested primarily in being left to pursue that goal. Skipping the stages of transition to agriculture and warfare over scant resource, a polity of established people found themselves on a political tabula rasa. Time was ticking along though. Reading Cooper’s Leather Stocking Tales, we can observe an encroaching legalism, as a nation of lawyers fascinated with early and easy success in the new land moved ever west in litigious exuberance.

From a friendly association of people more concerned with peace toward neighbors and freedom of the other to an empire that argues over equality and distribution of privileges, the nation rehearses the history of civilization, betraying the happy thought that mankind had surmounted its insatiable disposition toward stacking things up. Is this because any other course is impossible? Providence was the source of our cultural felicity. Set aside providence, and we are left with a tale of spoilage, and the forlorn hope of positivism, building a more mighty bulwark against frailty rather than a more perfect union. What now? It is unpleasant to think that, Walt Disney-like, we must create a replica of the old city in every new place we visit. That city on the hill looks a lot like the one that sat on seven hills.

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