Tuesday, November 07, 2006

American DNA: An Attempt to Define American People & Thought

With the mid-term elections underway, people around the world are wondering– once again! – what the United States is all about.

Are we a bunch of fire-breathing, church-going fanatics, war-mongers, money-hungry capitalists, pornographers, exporters of pop culture trash and fast food, and Fox Network viewers? Or are we, instead, a group of erudite, peace-loving, highly educated, New York Times-reading, wine drinking, brie eating liberals sporting a nuanced approached to all that we undertake?

Many Americans attend a religious service on the weekend, filling themselves up with spirituality only to trash it by 9:30 Monday morning in the name of the Almighty bottom line. And if someone gets hurt along the way, well, that’s just too damn bad.

Some of us, on the other hand, spend our free time attending a cultural outing; updating ourselves with a serious newspaper or magazine and then complimenting ourselves for being so damn smart; we then complete the weekend by downing a thick, succulent pork chop with a side of mashed potatoes, washed down, of course, with an appropriate libation that would meet the approval of the discerning editors of the Wine Spectator.

And that’s the problem with the United States. It’s a mix.

There are the extremes, like meat-eating conservatives and vegetarian liberals, along with every possible combination in between. We might ask a mathematician what the factorial is so we have an idea of just how many possible combinations exist. But, as those people around the world see it, if we Americans could just be one or the other, conservative or liberal, then they wouldn’t be so confused about our identity.

There have been numerous books and shows about the American state of mind. Each takes a different approach, thinking they’ve summed up pretty much how Americans think and then act. And, this week, if you have access to satellite radio, you can listen to a BBC program that attempts to explain America to its listeners around the world.

The foundations of American culture and identity are found within the two surviving, English-speaking colonies, Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. These two colonies, one about money, the other about religion, left ever-lasting impressions, determining, in many ways, U.S. priorities and concerns that continue to this very day. In many ways religion and money provide Americans a prism through which issues are interpreted, considered, thought about and often through which polices are created.

U.S. history pretty much leaves Jamestown out in the cold. But it is no less significant. In fact, the main crop of Jamestown, tobacco, remains with us today and causes legal and medical problems to this very day.

Jamestown is nearly forgotten because there are no national holidays which resulted from its founding. In comparison, Plymouth Rock and its Puritans have fared much better over time because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Settled in April 1607, about 13 years ahead of Plymouth Rock, Jamestown was all about cash. It was originally owned by the London Company, and its charter, granted by the British Crown, was to make a profit. It was to happen, the original managers thought, through the mining of precious metals.

Not much is known about Jamestown’s first settlers. Alden Vaughan, author of “American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia,” writes that the original settlers included “more than fifty gentlemen … one clergyman … four carpenters, twelve laborers, two bricklayers, a blacksmith, a mason, a tailor, a surgeon, a sailmaker, a drummer, and four boys.” The ships’ crews were not included in this original count. We don’t know much about the character of these people other than the London Company was looking for men “of skill, energy, and self-sacrifice.”

Unlike their fellow settlers in Massachusetts, the men of Jamestown were expected, writes Vaughan, “to meet the company’s demand for profits.” The London Company’s shareholders would earn dividends through the Colony’s successful mining of precious metals, farming and trade with Native Americans.

Jamestown’s managers and colonists quickly discovered that there were no precious metals to be found. Four years after the colony’s founding, John Rolfe planted tobacco. His first crop was harvested in 1612, Vaughan writes, and he was exporting it to England shortly thereafter. Three years later, he exported 2,000 lbs of tobacco to England; by 1620, he exported 40,000 lbs of tobacco; the amount exported increased, by 1629, to 1.5 million lbs.

Tobacco became the colony’s saving grace. There was a ready market in England for Virginia tobacco; and by consuming Virginia tobacco, England was no longer putting money into the coffers of their leading rival of the day, Spain. While tobacco certainly provided the colony with revenue, those running Jamestown became so concerned about the colonists appetite for growing tobacco that they had to force them grow corn (wheat) so they’d survive.

While he wasn’t the colony’s only leader, Captain John Smith personifies what Jamestown was all about. His dream, writes Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in their book “Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of The American Dream,” was to create a colony where men of limited means but great spirit “could prosper and, yes, grow rich.”

This desire to become rich is found throughout American history. And, as a result, Americans are concerned about pocketbook issues. The politicians know this which is why taxes and economics merit so much time and energy, especially during elections.

Are you better off today than you were four years ago, Ronald Reagan asked back in 1980 while running for president. The majority said no, tossing aside President Carter in favor of California’s former governor.

In 1620, a very different kind of colony was founded on the Massachusetts shore. The Puritans, the evangelical Christians of their day, first landed in what today is Provincetown, on the northern tip of Cape Cod, before forming a permanent colony in Plymouth Rock. They came to America, Paul Johnson writes, in his book “A History of the American People,” to create Heaven on earth.

The Puritans were about taking Christianity back to its roots. Purifying it, you might say. They interpreted the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament literally; and because there’s no mention of any kind of church hierarchy in the New Testament, it was their belief that the Church of England was fundamentally out of step with God’s will.

Puritan belief said that the Scriptures “were God’s direct way of communicating to mankind,” writes Neil Baldwin in his book “The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War.” This kind of thinking left no room for priests or bishops because their authority was considered “arbitrary and unwarranted.”

Puritans did not sing hymns because they were considered to be a “corruption of God’s word,” writes Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.” They did sing psalms; and they never knelt while taking communion because “there was no evidence that the apostles had done so during the Last Supper,” writes Philbrick.

The original settlers to Massachusetts were very much radicals of their day. They were “Separatists,” who left the Church of England, an illegal act at the time. They went to Holland before heading to America because the Dutch were far more tolerant of different religions. And, frankly, England was just as ready to rid themselves of them.

Prior to their actual landing in Massachusetts, 41 male settlers signed the Mayflower Compact, by which they agreed that “ … for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and country … (we) … solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another … combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation … constitute … just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

Today such a document is easily dismissed but when looked at more closely, and considering when it was written, this is the first example of average people signing a written pledge about how they’d behave within a larger political body. They pledged themselves to doing what was necessary for the good of the colony. So they’d subjugate their individual desires and needs for the greater good of the colony in order to ensure its survival. And, of course, as you’d have expected of those times, only the men signed the compact.

Both Jamestown and Plymouth Rock went through very difficult times. Colonists died due to disease, occasional fights with Native Americans and starvation. Life was hard. But the ones that survived, along with their descendents, determined the character of what was to become the United States. The turmoil produced a hardy people who conquered their environment, indigenous peoples, and the land that would become the United States.

Unlike other countries that were created by people sharing a similar background, ethnicity or geographic location, America is an idea. This means it accepts all who arrive at its shores. The two primary ideas that have driven people here, religious freedom and boundless economic potential, supersede, in many ways, political freedom. That would come much later, after the Revolution in the late 18th century.

It’s easy to dismiss people who are religious as fools. But one should keep in mind that the first politics of American settlers included religion. This was the way the Puritans distinguished themselves from the majority in England. Religion will always remain very important to Americans.

Henry Steele Commager, one of the 20th centuries brightest political thinkers, said Americans were defined by “the whole of the American environment – the sense of spaciousness, the invitation to mobility, the atmosphere of independence, the encouragement to enterprise and to optimism.” Europeans, wrote Commager, “lived so much in the past (but Americans) lived in the future, caring little for what the day might bring but much for the dreams – and profits – of the morrow.”

Commager said that Americans, while “often romantic about business … (were) practical about politics, religion, culture and science. He was endlessly ingenious and resourceful, always ready to improvise new tools or techniques to meet new conditions.” This American mind, which was the title of one of Commager’s books, borrowed freely from the natives as well as the other immigrants in order to survive.

Seymour Martin Lipsett, in his book “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,” writes that there’s such a thing as an “American Creed.” It is described “in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” These values, Lipsett wrote, “reflect the absence of feudal structures, monarchies and aristocracies” within the United States.

Because the United States never experienced feudalism, it has always been a country whose people have never understood or accepted class divisions. But, writes Lipsett, “European countries, Canada and Japan have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors.”

The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. “It has exhibited greater acceptance of biblical beliefs and higher levels of church attendance than elsewhere, with the possible exceptions of Poland and Ireland,” writes Lipsett. Church attendance in America is voluntary and churches are not state supported. This means that all denominations “must raise their own funds, engaging in a constant struggle to retain or expand the number of their adherents,” writes Lipsett.

Religion in America also defines how the country goes to war, writes Lipsett. “Americans must define their role in a conflict as being on God’s side against Satan – for morality, against evil,” writes Lipsett. He goes on to write, “The United States primarily goes to war against evil, not, in its self-perception, to defend material interests.”

So while many Americans took issue with how President George W. Bush took the country to war against Iraq, let’s consider for a moment how he defined the conflict. He said Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” Earlier, Bush defined Iraq, and Saddam in particular, has a nation that does “evil.” In many ways, President Bush used language that the American Heartland understood and, equally, how it defined America’s place in the world.

By defining the conflict in terms that many Americans understood, Bush was able to receive the support he needed to conduct the war against Iraq. He used the same language and spoke to America’s patriotism to secure re-election 2004. Had Bush’s opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry used similar language to criticize President Bush, he might very well be sitting in the Oval Office today.

So what are we? Well, it’s hard to completely define in this blog or anywhere else. But to sum it up, we’re a people who savor their freedom, are highly religious, enjoy independence, and are wary of state control. We’re also very generous. And much of what defines America today can be found in the two English-speaking colonies that survived, Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. It was their descendents who put America on the path to independence and greatness.

Today’s election results will be interesting to learn about later tonight and tomorrow. Study the winners. It’s likely that they studied the American mind in order to win.

If you want to know more about the American way of thinking, here’s a list of books you should consider:

“American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,” Seymour Martin Lipsett, W. W. Norton & Company: 1996. I’ve found this to be the best book that sums up all of the ideas that have created the American state of mind. Lipsett is a political scientist.

“American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia,” Alden T. Vaughan, Little, Brown and Company: 1975. I read this book in college while majoring in history. I’ve found this to be the single best book on the Jamestown colony.

“Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream,” Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 2006. A very readable book but it takes second place to Vaughan’s book.

“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking: 2006. This is a great read. I just bought it without my wife’s permission. Yikes!!!!!

“The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880’s” Henry Steele Commager, Yale University Press: 1950. Commager was an American icon in political science circles in the mid-20th century.

“The American Political Tradition & The Men Who Made It,” Richard Hofstadter, Alfred A. Knopf: 1968. Anyone who has ever studied American politics has read something by Richard Hofstadter. I first came across him while studying U.S. History in high school, when I was expected to read his tome, “The Age of Reform.”

“The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War,” Neil Baldwin, St. Martin’s Press: 2005. An excellent book but I keep wondering why he didn’t write about Jamestown.

“Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War,” E. Brooks Holifield, Yale University Press: 2003. This is heavy reading, especially if you’re not all that grounded in religious thought.

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