Free Minds & Free Markets

America as Utopia

A city upon a hill, a human-divine paradise, a light unto the nations—the American Religion

America is unique among nations of Western society in its utopia-touched origins. When John Winthrop and his band of Puritans arrived in Massachusetts they brought with them a firm desire to create a society of Biblical purity. "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." This injunction from St. Matthew (5:14) was taken by Winthrop and his fellow Pilgrims as the foundation of the new nation they intended to create. As Perry Miller has pointed out in his historic essay "Errand in the Wilderness," the first spiritual crisis of the New World took place when these hardy and devout Puritans discovered, first, that the eyes of all people were not on them and second, that as the years passed, they had fallen morally from the sacred hill.

The utopian passion continued, however, and much of the intellectual history of the 17th century reflects the passion and also preoccupation with the nature and conditions of utopian being—of wickedness to be overcome and virtue to be attained. Within a few decades an important change took place. When they arrived the Puritans had their minds on a Christian city. But soon the protagonist of the divine epic could be seen subtly changing from the Puritan-Christian to the American. As Ernest Tuveson has written in his illuminating Redeemer Nation: The Idea of Americas Redeemer Role:

"When Protestant millennialist theory was formed, logically there came with it a need to find a new chosen nation, or nations. If history is theodicy, if redemption is historical as well as individual.…there must be children of light and children of darkness geographically, and the City of God and the City of the World should be susceptible of being designated on maps."

From the time of the Great Awakening of the 1730s in America, with Jonathan Edwards one of the principal figures involved, Christianity and Americanism would interpenetrate, with the fervor and even the liturgy of the former often infused into treatments of the 13 colonies, not least in their increasingly hated role of being subject to the British Crown. America was by now the "city upon a hill" in the eyes of a constantly enlarging number of pre-Revolutionary Americans. It is doubtful that a single American president, down to and including Ronald Reagan, has failed in one speech or another to invoke the Matthew image in support of America the Redeemer.

It was in this light of redemption that the American jeremiad was born. This distinctive form of literature came first into existence in Europe, an element of the Protestant Reformation. But it reached its greatest force and intensity in America, first through Puritan use, then more widely, American. Sacvan Bercovitch, in The American Jeremiad, has gone to the heart of this literary form:

"The American jeremiad was a ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity, the shifting 'signs of the times' to certain traditional metaphors, themes, and symbols. To argue (as I do) that the jeremiad has played a major role in fashioning the myth of America is to define it at once in literary and historical terms. Myth may clothe history as fiction, but it persuades in proportion to its capacity to help men act in history."

In the beginning the American jeremiad was little more than the sermon, but by the early 18th century its essence could be found in secular as well as religious contexts, in passionate support of America the Beautiful as well as Christ. Tirelessly the writers of jeremiads told the story of America, the "city upon a hill," the land of all the hopes and dreams which had been blunted and even destroyed in the Old World.

But with equal ardor the jeremiadists told what was wrong with America in its present hour, told of its secret recesses of wickedness, of evils which had somehow accumulated in the course of America's brief history. And finally, transcendingly, the jeremiad laid out a program of action and reform by which America could recover the innocence that had become lost or tarnished. In each of these thrusts, there lay the conviction that America had, through some combination of divine and historical reasons, become the conscience of the world, at once model and actor.

Those historians who have tried to demonstrate that the American Revolution was a strictly "controlled," "finite," and "contained" revolution, with little if any ecstasy about it, simply haven't read the exultations and the promises of most of the men who carried the Revolution through to success. For Tom Paine, Samuel Adams, and also John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, America of the Revolution was in truth "a city upon a hill" and, moreover, one with the "eyes of all people" upon it. They saw the flames of the American Revolution spreading to South America and Europe and Asia, to all places in due time where people suffered from ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, and tyranny.

In newspaper, sermon, oration, pamphlet, historical study, novel, and state decree, the American jeremiad flourished in the decades following the Revolution, flourished indeed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. By virtue of the jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch writes, "American millennialism pervaded the entire spectrum of social thought. Educators planned for a 'spiritual revolution' that would bring humanity to perfection. Political and moral performers advertised their programs as the 'revolutionary consummation of God's plan.' Prominent thinkers urged that technology would 'revolutionize the land' into becoming a 'human-divine paradise'.…Labor leaders found in the Revolution a 'post-millennial justification for trade unionism.'"

The idea of progress was of course a cardinal premise, or corollary, of American utopianism. This idea, with historic roots in both Greek rationalism and Christian millennialism, was almost perfectly forged for American use. That mankind had progressed in the past, was now progressing, and would continue to progress—spiritually, morally, and socially, as well as economically and politically—was no more doubted by Adams and Jefferson than by such Europeans as Condorcet and Godwin. And, thought the Founding Fathers, America was in the vanguard of this human epic of progress.

Americans warmed to any European visitor who flattered them, as Tocqueville did, at least in the first part of his Democracy in America, and tried to overlook the occasional tourist like Dickens who was somewhat less impressed. As H.L. Mencken has recorded in his American Language, the 19th century was an age of unrivaled profusion of homely but telling maxims and other colloquialisms bespeaking an America already astride the world. The philosopher-historian John W. Draper filled Cooper Union night after night with his solemn and lengthy disquisitions on the foundations of American progress in natural law, a progress that was "as completely under the control of natural law as is the bodily growth of an individual." The American utopia was, in sum, a part of the natural provisions of cosmic physics.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, so often doubtful about this or that element of Americana, was as confident as any other prophet of the essential correctness of the American course of history. "Who does not prefer the age of steel, of gold, of coal, petroleum, cotton, steam" to the falsely lauded ages of stone, bronze, and iron in the past? In 1893 Chicago's great Columbian Exhibition brought 27 million visitors to its 600 acres of technological marvels. If the first theme was world progress, a second theme of American progress and leadership in the world was easy to identify.

It is sometimes forgotten that Henry George's classic Progress and Poverty, justly famous for its brilliantly conceived single tax, on land, had its origins, by the author's own acknowledgement, not in musings upon poverty but upon progress. Everything, with but one exception, he believed, bespoke the fulfilled progress of mankind in his day. This one exception was the persistence of poverty. To repair poverty—and the single tax would effect this—was to add the final step to a then-complete stairway to perfection, to utopia. "Words fail the thought: It is the Golden Age of which poets have sung and the high-raised seers have told in metaphor.…It is the culmination of Christianity—the City of God on earth.…It is the reign of the Prince of Peace."

Of course, as is doubtless inevitable, minds equally devout in their faith in the American Religion could divide bitterly whether a given act by the nation was in accord or grievous disaccord with the image of American nobility. Thus the war with Spain led such Americans as William James, Josiah Royce, and William Graham Sumner to denounce, in full jeremiadic tones, American imperialism—"earth hunger," as Sumner caustically dismissed it. But there were many others, probably a majority, to hail American aggression upon Spain as a mighty blow for America the Utopia, America the Redeemer, ever concerned with the plight of peoples still unacquainted with American political perfection.

The American Religion has been a two-edged sword in our history. It has manifestly provided much of the psychological and ethical motivations that have gone into the populating and reclaiming of a vast continent. The moral and social elements that all students of capitalism, starting with Max Weber, have found to be crucial in economic growth and all that it contains and implies are the very stuff of the American Creed. Individual self-reliance, individual achievement, material prosperity, an eye to the future as well as the present, a preference for the private to the public sector as the haven of those in need, and the values of the family, church, and local community—these are all canons, as it were, of the American Religion.

But the American Religion has fostered another kind of dedication: that of conveying moral righteousness to the world. We see this in so much of our foreign policy.

It was Woodrow Wilson who saturated American policy toward the world with piety and moralism that virtually took the world by storm. From childhood he knew the clutch of Calvinist moral fervor. By the time he reached college his native Calvinism had begun to evolve into an evangelical Americanism. Tirelessly he cited St. Matthew's injunction, and incessantly he was at work on the actual creation, three centuries later, of the blessed city. He worked first for a "Princeton in the Nation's Service," in the process alienating half his students, faculty, and trustees; those who somehow couldn't assimilate his fervent preaching in support of extirpating the eating clubs and siting the graduate school, with each mission declared vital to all humanity.

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