Issues analysis
'The Era of the Republic': America is still living in the vitality of its founding era
January 17, 2007
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Both the Roman Republic and the American Republic enjoyed a period of energy and vitality. The thesis of this essay is that the American Republic is still in its era of vitality.

The Roman Republic had about four centuries of vitality. The last century of the Republic, however, was a time of troubles during which the moral force and unity of the Republic was lost. That turbulent century was vexed with at least ten foreign wars and at least ten civil wars or insurrections, and it also had two dictators and two triumvirates. The Republic was exhausted and demoralized when Augustus Caesar became emperor in 27 B.C.

According to Jacques Maritain, America still enjoys the vitality of its Republican Era as Rome did for four centuries. America has not yet had a century of continuous trouble and disillusionment as the Roman Republic did. Far from being exhausted, American dynamism is still the wonder of the world.

The 20th century Tocqueville

Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), French Neo-Thomist philosopher, lived mainly in America from 1940–1960. Maritain, a Frenchman of high intellectual culture and a Christian of spiritual discernment, noticed some remarkable things about Americans of which Americans were unaware. The unaware American is like the fish that does not know what it means to be wet because it has never been dry. Maritain observed his American "fish," from eyes that were "outside the fish tank."

Maritain, as an observer of America, was like Alexis de Tocqueville, who came from France to America a little more than a century before Maritain came. Both Tocqueville and Maritain startled Americans with surprising revelations about them. Maritain is our 20th century Tocqueville.

Thomas Albert Howard described Maritain's reaction to America in Maritain's America, an essay in the January 2007 Edition of First Things. "Maritain was struck by the ongoing vitality of America's founding era. A living past, instead of an exhausted one, and a palpable sense of a future amenable to human initiative." Maritain posited that because Americans inhabited a "living past," they had an "openness to the future." (Quoted passages in this essay are a mixture of Howard's words and Maritain's words.)

The atmosphere that Americans live, breathe, inhabit, and take for granted radiates an energy that makes them enthusiastic, optimistic, and forward looking. While Americans take their vitality for granted, some Europeans like Maritain admire it, and others feel intimidated by it.

A living past

The "living past" of America is quite different from living in the past. Precisely because Americans inhabit their past as an unselfconscious way of life, they are the least backward looking people in the world. Those who want to break free from the American past often accuse conservatives of wanting to "turn back the clock." This is an absurd accusation because American conservatives are just as forward looking as American liberals. Preserving and renewing the spirit of the founders is perfectly consistent with boldly moving into the future. Our living past sustains the whirlwind of activity of American life. The bustling American dynamism did not come into being because Americans left the past behind in order to move into the future. Americans are dynamic precisely because they did not leave their past behind.

Linguistic proof of a living past

The science of linguistics offers proof that the past is more alive to Americans than it is to the people in the mother country of Great Britain. According to historian David Hackett Fisher, who wrote Albion's Seed, the American dialects of English are archaic. The four regional speech dialects in America have not changed much in the last two or three centuries. If an American could go back in a time machine to the Philadelphia of 1776 and listen to the speech patterns of the people, he would understand almost everything that was said, and the local dialects would be no more difficult for him than a modern New Yorker in Alabama.

In contrast, the four regions of Great Britain where the four American dialects originated have had continuing changes in local speech patterns. The modern New England dialect is closer to the dialects that existed in East Anglia three hundred years ago than is the contemporary lingo of East Anglia. The American southern dialect is closer to the dialects of the southern counties of England of three centuries ago than are the present dialects of southern England. Shakespeare and the King James Bible have a fresher sound to American ears than to English ears. Linguistically, time almost stands still in America. The fads of street argot come and go, but the established speech patterns remain.

Although America is a nation of dizzying change, Americans still think and talk like their forefathers who sailed from Britain in the 17th and 18th century. Immigrants who came later quickly learned to think and talk like Americans and become sons of the American founders more than sons of Europe. In this way, America is truly a new world.

In another way, America is an old world. The culture of the British of the 17th and 18th century was mature and seasoned by six centuries of development. The preservation of this old culture of quality and depth in the new world was fortuitous for the American Republic.

The land where time stands still

To Americans, the founding fathers seem to have lived only yesterday. Time stands still for Americans through the generations, even as each generation looks to the future. American pioneers had no fear in pushing out to new horizons and reaching for distant vistas, because they brought the atmosphere of their living past with them. No man is so bold and adventurous as the man for whom time holds no terrors. No inventor and innovator is so radical as the man who inhabits the past and takes it for granted. The comfort of a living past frees a people from the burden of a dead past, so that a new world can be created.

According to Maritain, the brisk, intoxicating air that Americans breathe was in existence during the founding era of the Republic and has continued these two hundred years. It may well be that historians of a future century might identify the period of 1800–2000 and beyond as the Era of the Republic, because it will be recognized as the extended period when the spirit of America's founding had a decisive and continuing effect on America's culture.

The American chemistry

Maritain identified three elements in the unique American chemistry: 1) "A constitutional framework inspired by an implicitly theological sense of natural law"; 2) The spirit of freedom that involves concern for the individual; and 3) "The vivifying power of Christianity," creating an atmosphere of Christian spirituality that gently soaks into American culture and puts an electric charge of spiritual stimulus into the air. Let's briefly consider each:

1) The constitutional framework. The concept of natural law that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas is embodied in the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution because it is a set of early amendments to the Constitution. Americans venerate the Constitution as a framework for government and as a uniting authority that has a living embrace on America. Since the Constitution is redolent with natural law and natural law governs what it means to be human, the Constitution is uniquely agreeable to human nature.

The Constitution helps Americans to sort out who they are as individuals and who they are as one people. Maritain admired how "people of diverse religious backgrounds worked for the common good," under the constitutional framework. The constitutional framework helped to create E pluribus unum, or "from many one," our national unity in diversity. Just as the queen is the rallying symbol of English patriotism, the Constitution and the flag are the rallying symbols of American patriotism.

2) The spirit of freedom is the first thing visitors from abroad sense when they set foot on American soil. There is nothing so free as a fish swimming effortlessly through water. In like manner, an American effortlessly moves through an atmosphere of freedom. One essential aspect of that freedom is respect for the individual. No society can be free unless the thoughts and movements of individual persons are respected.

The Constitution comforts the American with the security of natural and reasonable limits and boundaries. Within those salutary boundaries, the American can live a life of freedom and order. At the same time, the Constitution reassures the American that his legitimate freedoms are his by right, are founded upon natural law, and will not be stolen by tyrants. It is no accident that Americans actually feel free. The feeling of freedom is essential to the American pursuit of happiness.

An old man who came to New York in his youth was asked, "Were you disappointed when you arrived in New York? You were told that the streets were paved with gold." The old man grinned and said, "To us the streets were paved with gold!" The feeling of freedom made men of humble and distant origins feel like kings as they strutted down the sidewalks of New York.

3) The atmosphere of Christian spirituality. In spite of, or because of, the fact that America has many denominations and sects, Christian spirituality has flourished in America more than in any other nation. The atmosphere in an American community tingles with Christian spirituality. Unbelievers and skeptics breathe this atmosphere and participate in the vitality of the society, even if they deny the source of the electrically charged air they breathe and even if they give themselves the credit for their energy and creativity.

The waves of revivalism that have swept America many times have essentially been repeated calls to enter eternal life. Eternity is a state of spiritual peace and joy in the presence of the changeless now of God. The mystery of the eternal now offers a clue about how Americans can inhabit their living past as though the past is now.

Christianity reinforces the universal moral law that is inherent in the natural law basis of the Constitution. There can be no free Republic without a moral citizenry. Romans of the Republic practiced the Roman virtues. Americans have followed Christian virtues and the universal moral law. Statutory laws based upon the universal moral law have made American freedom under law a viable proposition. Law is not oppressive if it agrees with the universal moral law and natural law, because natural law is amenable to human nature.

The fruits of Christianity

Maritain was particularly impressed with how Americans voluntarily band together to do good works, which is a fruit of the Christian spirit upon the land. He spoke of the "infinite swarming" of private charities, foundations, schools, and fraternal orders. He praised the philanthropic spirit of the average American. He admired the energy and creativity of free enterprise that was the engine of wealth. A surprising amount of the wealth of America was given to charity. The dynamic of creating wealth through the full use of the human faculties, and giving it away, represented to Maritain "an epochal boon to human flourishing."

Maritain had a Catholic sensitivity to the redemptive potential of suffering. He considered the persecuted, humiliated, rejected immigrant coming to America and the spiritual consequences of their suffering. Even though some immigrants thought the streets were paved with gold, the hardships, griefs, and terrors of immigration by poor people cannot be overestimated. Maritain reckoned that this suffering was one reason why the gospel of Jesus Christ was so fruitful in America.

"The cultural memory of past suffering coupled with a chance to make good in a new world had deposited 'a reminiscence of the gospel in the inner attitude of people' and a resolve that misery need not be the accepted lot." He added, "Here lies a distinctive privilege of this country, and a deep human mystery concealed behind its power and prosperity. The tears and suffering of the persecuted and unfortunate are transmuted into a perpetual effort to improve human destiny."

Determinism: America vs. Europe

Maritain observed that Europe suffers from "sclerosis" from an "overwhelming historical heredity" of an "exhausted past," partly due the calamities of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Europeans' past is a weight that rests heavily upon their minds. The past as a weight is quite different from the living and energizing past of Americans.

European ideologies of "historical necessity" and "determinism" have taken root in Europe, but such ideas have never taken deep root in American soil. For example, Marxism and socialism based on economic determinism took deep root in every European nation during the 1930's, but not in America. Only the American universities and intelligentsia took Marxism and socialism seriously. The all-powerful Democratic party of the1930's was never able to bring about more than a mild creeping socialism. President Ronald Reagan stopped the socialist creep in the 1980's.

Like Marxism, the postmodern cult of cultural determinism and biological determinism has not yet taken deep root in American soil. Therefore, most Americans have escaped the paralyzing hand of determinism and European sclerosis.

American vitalism vs. fatalism

T. E. Lawrence, a swashbuckling major in the British Army, led the Arabs to victory over the Turks during World War I. A recurring problem that Lawrence had with the Arabs who followed him was Muslim belief in "kismet," or fate. Muslim fatalism is the theological version of determinism. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia (1962) a servant of Lawrence was left behind on foot in the desert. All the Arabs said "it is written," meaning his death was predetermined by Allah. Lawrence understood that such fatalism made the Arabs weak and impotent before the Turkish Empire. He said "nothing is written" and went out and rescued his servant. Lawrence intended the phrase "nothing is written" as a rebuke to fatalism.

One reason why pagan peoples have trouble establishing civilizations is that they are debilitated by fatalism. Muslim fatalism is one reason why Arab nations are backward and impoverished in spite of oil wealth. Americans are surprised that the Iraqis don't do more to establish their newly democratic nation in security and order. Muslim fatalism works against personal initiative. Sometimes only unhinged passions and collective madness — as is expressed in terrorism, revenge killings, and mob riots — can break them free of fatalism and prod them into action.

A man I know grew up in the jungles of South America, came to America, and made good. He was successful as a scholar and became the dean of a college philosophy department. He had a second career as a pastor and personal counselor. I asked him why he came to America. He said that he wanted to escape the paralyzing fatalism of the Brazilian jungle and enjoy the "dynamic vitalism" of America. He explained that when a native traveling through the forest comes to a river, he wails that he has been blocked by fate and returns home. An American arriving at the same river would immediately start planning how to build a bridge or a boat.

The culture war: America vs. Europe

America's Republican spirit is not threatened by a concentration of foreign wars, civil wars, and insurrections of the kind that exhausted the Roman Republic. The battle of ideas we call the culture war is what threatens to bring the Era of the Republic to an end. If the liberals have their way, they will replace American dynamism with a European style paralysis. Let us count the ways:

1) Liberals would have us lay the American past aside in order to move into the "future." They would have us exchange a living past for a dead past. Instead of being dynamic sons in the land of our fathers, we would be reduced to being strangers in a strange land, alienated from our history and our heritage.

2) Liberals would have us adopt biological, cultural, and economic determinism as the Europeans have done. They would have us exchange our dynamic vitalism for a debilitating fatalism.

3) Liberal judges would destroy the constitutional framework of the Republic, by draining the natural law content of the Constitution and using the document as a tool for social engineering. Instead of laws agreeable to human nature as expressions of natural law, the liberal judges would invent laws by fiat that are inhuman and oppressive.

Without the constitutional framework, America would no longer be e pluribus unum. It would be a disunited arena of factions, interest groups, and identity pressure groups. Without the steadying influence of the Constitution, Congress would degenerate into a European-style Parliament with fragmented and shifting coalition governments. The executive branch of government would be eclipsed by an unrestrained liberal Court and a Speaker of the House who fancies himself or herself to be the Prime Minister.

4) Liberals want the influence of Christianity reduced to what goes on during church services. They wish to introduce a European-style antagonism between Christ and public life. If they get their wish, say goodbye to the private charities, fraternal orders, foundations, private schools, and orphanages. The philanthropic spirit will vanish as it has in Europe. Government will replace all the charities and benevolences as it has in Europe. Bureaucracy will replace Christian love.

5) Liberals want to say farewell to the universal moral law and Christian virtue. Promising the people sexual freedom, they would destroy the family and reduce the people to a soul-destroying slavery to vice.

6) Instead of human suffering transformed by Christ into a redemptive force for a better world, liberals would harness the bitterness of those who suffer into political factions, identity interest groups, and activist groups claiming their rights. Such "rights" are not claimed by liberals on the ground of natural law, but are asserted through the rage of their partisans and through claims upon the guilt, pity, and fear of their fellow citizens. Their newly manufactured rights are born of envy, bitterness, and hysteria, instead of being innate rights endowed by nature and nature's God.

7) Liberals want to crush the entrepreneurial spirit with government regulations as European governments have done. Liberals would replace the enterprising zest of Americans with a supine dependency upon government largess.

8) Liberals would have Americans believe in determinist myths like economic, biological, and cultural determinism and thereby lapse into fatalism. After being debilitated by fatalism, Americans would refuse to face foreign threats as Europeans refuse to face them, and refuse to deal with internal chaos as Arabs refuse to deal with them.

Conclusion

If Maritain is correct and we are still living in the Era of the Republic, then we can win the culture war, precisely because the spirit of the founders still lives on in our midst. The key to victory is to educate the American people about the nature of the battle that confronts them.

However, liberals have made headway in their above eight agendas. If they win, the Era of the Republic will come to an end and the spirit of the Republic will be extinguished. There are many battles ahead that must be won if the Era of the Republic is to be extended to the next generation. If the Republic should fail, no greater tragedy could come to mankind.

Never in the history of man has such vitality and human energy been unleashed as in the Roman Republic and the American Republic. The American Republic is nobler than the Roman Republic because the spirit of Christ has blessed and tamed the rambunctious Americans. In closing, let us hail our precious heritage, the American Republic.

"Thou too, sail on, O Ship of State! / Sail on O Union, strong and great! / Humanity with all its fears, / With all the hopes of future years, / Is hanging breathless on thy fate! // We know what Master laid thy keel, / What Workman wrought thy hoops of steel, / Who made each mast, and sail, and rope, / What anvils rang, what hammers beat, / In what a forge and what a heat / Were shaped the anchors of thy hope! // Fear not each sudden sound and shock, / 'Tis of the wave and not the rock; / 'Tis but the flapping of a sail, / And not a rent made by the gale! // In spite of rock and tempest's roar, / In spite of false lights upon the shore, / Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea! // Our hearts, our hopes are all with thee. / Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears, / Our faith triumphant o'er our fears, / Are all with thee, are all with thee.

(Oh Ship of State, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31