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Americanism: The Genesis of a Civil Theology (Part I)

Americanism: The Genesis Of A Civil Theology (Part I)

Monumental History

The process by which the founders’ consciousness created itself a social field in the new society and the authority of an ultimate source of order was accrued to them lasted half a century. This process was accelerated because it fit seamlessly into the traditional thought patterns of New En­gland speculation on history and heroes. New England historiography,1 formally an Anglo-Saxon variant of reformation historiography, has, since the end of the seventeenth century, dealt with “the wonders of the Christian religion, flying from the depri­vations of Europe to the American strand”2 and thus dealt predomi­nantly with those “godly men” who were at once founders and fathers of the New England colonies: “particularly after 1676, a theme receives literary formulation which henceforth was to be a staple of the New En­gland mind: ancestor worship. Virtually every one who migrated as an adult before 1640 was gone; in order to lay the covenant of the golden age upon their descendants. . . , the spokesmen called for such a venera­tion of progenitors as is hardly to be matched outside China.”

An im­pressive document for this attitude was the previously mentioned Magnalia Christi Americana of Cotton Mather, who, as the grandson of John Cotton and Richard Mather and the son of Increase Mather, was a le­gitimate prophet of the Founding Fathers’ fame. The Magnalia was “under the guise of history, a sustained chant to the glory of might and already misty ancestral heroes.”3 And “it is a monumental piece of an­cestor veneration, full to the brim of ‘Heroes worthy to have their lives written.”4 Perry Miller saw the cause of this phenomenon in that func­tional nexus of the cult of the founders with the ongoing controversy concerning the right order, which was later to become so important for all modern societies grounded in revolution and which had been anticipated in the New England of the early eighteenth century: “Soon empha­sis upon this theme was carried to such length of abjectness. . . , that we marvel how any Protestant culture could so abnegate its Christian liberty, until we remind ourselves that the preachers were fighting tooth and nail for what they considered survivival, that these gestures were not so much humble submissions to the past as a discharge of heavy artillery against their antagonists.”5

The same period saw the beginning of the outward practices of the cult of the hero: in 1729 in Salem for the first time on the American continent a centennial celebration in memory of the Founding Fathers’ landing was held, and numerous sermons in Massachusetts recalled the event. Shortly thereafter, Plymouth Rock emerged as a monument to be worshiped and a symbol of the colony’s founding. The intensification of outward forms of hero worship does not occur until the prelude to revo­lution.6 In any case, at the end of the eighteenth century a “composite ideal called the Pilgrimfathers or the Puritans”7 emerges; in the years when the republic was being consolidated, this model fused into a unified national symbolism by merging with the more recent small and large, as well as regional and national, heroes, and the symbolism of the Revolution.

In this symbolism the heroic fathers of the first founding served as Johannine heralds of the heroes of the Revolution: “The sons of the fa­thers became fathers themselves in the course of the Revolution.” The patriots’ “actions possessed warrant and metaphysical validity because they were patterned on the model that had existed from time immemo­rial: they in the present were secure because they were repeating an ex­emplary action from out of the past. Yet while still invoking their fathers, the patriots were finding in their actions a creative power without ref­erence to the models from the past. They began to function as self-constituting and self-commanding figures.”8

The condition for this state was the general acceptance “of proposi­tions identifying the purposes of the original settlers with the cause for which the revolution was fought”9—a premise we have already encoun­tered in our examination of Adams’ self-understanding. Although this view found its confirmation in the traditions of most colonies, it inevi­tably led to an overwhelming influence of the New England Puritan tra­dition on the new republic’s understanding of history I0 (which found its analogy in politics and to a lesser extent in the social order, thanks to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787).

In the other colonies there was no cult of the fathers and of heroes that was as lavish, William Penn in Pennsylvania excepted;11 and the New England historiography, from the chronicles of the first settlers to Thomas Hutchinson’s masterwork, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764), stood alone at the top. Subsequent historiography contributions of the Smith clan for the middle colonies, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania descended directly from New England writings. In the South, historical consciousness overstepped the threshold of articulation only in three histories of Virginia, all written between 1705 and 1750.12

This supremacy of the New England tradition of history is not acci­dental; New England historiography was the explication of the City Upon the Hill, its origin and its crisis; it was expressed in an intense intellectualism, which radiated dynamically into the social reality, and this in turn was shaped along the concept of the “New England way of life” and established a self-confident political regime. As a jeremiad, created by an awareness of crisis, New England historiography always expressed an interest in the concrete beginnings and in the founders of the New England polities, in order to renew the original substance of society through revivals.

Beginnings and founders were, so to speak, on the record and original in the sense of a politically and intellectually autonomously engendered society, which represents itself. Only New England could lay claim to a founding out of a spirit of separatism, outside the British empire, which one had voluntarily joined, and in the realization of an apocalyptically inspired new order (although only Plymouth—but not Massachusetts Bay—had understood itself as a separatist community). Once the self-interpretation of the Revolution had engaged in a speculation on American origins up to illuminating their significance, it necessarily had to cling to the New England tradition.13

In spite of Captain John Smith, the beginnings of Virginia were visible only in blurred outline; historiography kept to the reform policy of the Virginia Company (1619 — 1624), or the transformation of Virginia into a Crown colony (1624); it further saw Virginia closely connected with the political quarrels between Parliament and king and with the opposi­tion to Cromwell—in short, in the imperial context. Thomas Jefferson and Richard Bland, like Adams, claimed their po­litical and legal privileges as Englishmen in confrontation with Parlia­ment; but they did not invoke any American fathers. They followed the Whig view by transferring the origin of rights, liberties, and self-government to the old Anglo-Saxon order, which was already corrupted by the Norman invasion and was now to be destroyed once and for all in America.14 This conception was the Whig tradition common to both En­gland and America,15 but understandably it played a lesser role in New England (Adams thought little of the transfiguration of the old Saxons16). Similar difficulties arose concerning the beginnings of the other colonies: the proprietary colonies owed their origins to a feudal institution; Geor­gia was the failed result of a philanthropic entrepreneurial spirit that aimed to empty London’s debtors’ prisons; and Maryland was a Catholic island in a Protestant sea.

Massachusetts—which offered its sister colonies a self-confident tra­dition of solid beginnings, solid founders, and an aggregate of motives for self-assertion tested over a long period of time—was both instigator and driving force of the independence movement. Furthermore, the Mas­sachusetts of 1776 was no longer the City Upon the Hill of 1630; and the structure of the cult of the hero and of historiography, formally un­changed, contained a content whose sentiments, doctrines, and attitudes were, not least as a result of the Great Awakening, already shared throughout America to such an extent that they could be accepted by the comrades-in-arms in the other colonies. These concepts included the he­roic element of the “errand into the wilderness”; the English elements of traditional rights, freedoms, and self-government; and the Protestant ele­ment of the freedom of religion and conscience. Thus the New England tradition of heroes and history substantially encompassed the entire American past: the forefathers came to America as free men paying their own way, took possession of the land by their own blood and sweat, and always proved their original freedom-loving cast of mind by resistance to every imperial encroachment on their privileges and their right to self-government.17

The process of becoming a nation is also heralded in the project of an American history. In 1774 Ebenezer Hazard wrote, “When civil states rise into importance, even their earliest history becomes the object of speculation.” Since it was therefore important to make available materi­als “to lay the foundation of a good American history,” Hazard proposed a collection of important documents under the title “American State Papers.”18 But long before Hazard could realize his plans, George Chalmers, a Tory who had returned to England as early as 1775, had composed an American history, Political Annals of the Present United Colonies (1780). All the historians of the new Republic learned from this book, and it communicated to them three basic elements of the New England tradi­tion: (i) The beginnings of the colonies, unlike those of the European nations, are known and open to historical examination; (2) Puritan New England, though no bastion of religious freedom, always marched at the head of the colonial civilizational process, and since the transfer of the charter of its Bay Colony to America, it thought of independence within or outside the Empire; (3) The Revolution began and ended as a defense of existing rights and liberties.19

It is true that other strata and facets asserted themselves in the historical self-understanding of the Republic; but I am here dealing for the moment merely with the recurrent dominant symbolic pattern in which the New England dovetailing of the cult of the hero and historical thought was effective. In his History of the United States (1834-1876), George Bancroft laid down this conception, which was in force well into the twentieth century. Bancroft, a student of Heeren’s in Göttingen, follower of Andrew Jackson, and “high priest of American nationality,”20 located the American mission of a City Upon the Hill in a universal drama written by God and applying to all man­kind, whose climax is the realization of freedom in the organization of American society.21 

The American understanding of heroes and history may be summed up in Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “monumental history.” According to Nietzsche, it is motivated by faith in humanity, with the basic idea that states that “the great moments in the individual battle form a chain, a highroad for humanity through the ages, and the highest points of those vanished moments are yet great and living for men.”22 And Nietzsche further articulates precisely the theme that gave rise to the New England cult of the hero and historiography: “If the man who will produce some­thing great has need of the past, he makes himself its master by means of monumental history.”23

But Bancroft’s monumental history was sufficiently leavened with hu­manism to keep the national chosenness and apocalyptic structure from overwhelming man entirely, debasing him to the other-determined object of collective-libidinous processes, to which monumental history of the nation-state kind was only too easily inclined at the time. Bancroft’s popularity, the product of a style indebted to the romantic aesthetic, cor­rected the success of such tendencies in America, which appeared in the form of Darwinian historiography of the late nineteenth century. The nexus of hero and history, implied in the concept of monumental history, is expressly turned into the content of history by Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”24 It is also preserved when, as in the democratic cult of the genius celebrated by the Jacksonians, the common man becomes the hero; this variant of hero worship already occurs in the works of Thomas Carlyle.

In contrast to Europe, however, America did not furnish any speculative undertaking transcending self-interpretation, such as the work of an American Machiavelli or Carlyle. The few attempts at a theorization of this complex made use of Euro­pean categories: Emerson reproduced Carlyle; Alexander Everett fell back on Victor Cousin.25 This did not change until the twentieth century, when American self-understanding became the object of examination; Dixon Wecter, Merrill D. Peterson, Seymour Martin Lipset, Wesley Frank Craven, Daniel Boorstin, all study the figure and role of the hero in America. I believe that two factors are responsible for this situation. One is the understandable intellectual parochialism of the new nation at the outer­most limits of the western inhabited world; the other is the extraordinary functional significance of the cult of the hero.

Beyond this basic difference, Boorstin, though he ignored the New England heroic tradition and the specifically modern European cult of the hero, points out that “in America the compression of time and the extension of space transformed the whole problem.” Boorstin compared the rapid exaltation of historical figures through democratic mass litera­ture at the moment of becoming a nation with the long process in which the heroes of the early European period (Achilles, Beowulf, Romulus, King Arthur) gradually changed through oral transmission into figures of a high literature written for a small upper class and eventually became a component in the national cult of the hero. But this is an unacceptable restriction of European phenomena; and correct as the observation of “chronological abridgment” and trivialization through subliterature in a completely literate society may be, it nevertheless seems to me true for all new nation states. A result of American conditions is surely the re­gional “superman,” most often admixed with folkloristic comedy ele­ments, whom Boorstin also differentiates from the consciously con­structed national heroes in the manner of George Washington.26

John Adams was not alone in harboring a lifelong mistrust of Wash­ington’s “apotheosis.” For the skeptics Washington was, beyond his real merits as commander in chief and statesman, exclusively the exponent and symbol of the nation; but he was not its creator. Even during the war Adams still vehemently disputed the idea that if outstanding leaders of the revolution were lost by death or corruption, the course of the Revo­lution could be changed in some way. He included Washington in his judgment, for only the people’s “sentiments” were determining.27 Washington was merely “the creature of a principle, and that principle was the union of the colonies,”28 and Washington’s character was to be praised only as an “exemplification of the American character.”29

In the same way, when Adams was president, his eulogy for Washington in 1799 recalled the greatness of this man from the aspect of an exemplary found­er’s virtue, an element important to pass on to posterity. “His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citi­zens, and men, not only in the present age but in future generations as long as our history shall be read.”30 Death freed Washington the hero from an awkward situation. For toward the end of his life he had strayed into the tense field of partisan confrontations and had been seen by many as a tool of the Federalists. In 1798, Adams, a victim of Hamilton’s po­litical tactics, had named the old general commander in chief of a de facto Federalist army, with Hamilton as inspector general. This measure had given new nourishment to the widespread fears of a military putsch, with Hamilton as dictator. But Washington’s death immediately restored him to his status as pater patriae, the Cincinnatus of Mount Vernon, and the Moses of his chosen people in the New World.31

The Apotheosis of the Founders

In 1800, when the Federalists, after twelve years in power, had lost al­most all regional and national offices to the Republicans, the promotion of the cult of Washington was more than a consolation to them; it also gave them an opportunity to use this national symbol to solicit the lost sympathies of the majority of their fellow citizens. Until this time the Federalists, as officeholders, had been able to monopolize the nation’s birthday. Now that the Republicans governed the symbols, cult, and rites  of the Fourth of July, they celebrated less the fact of independence (as the Federalists did) than the democratic import of the preamble and its au­thor, Thomas Jefferson, of whom not much had been said until this time. As a countermove, the Federalists turned to Washington’s birthday.32

 Of course, underlying the pragmatic occasion for easy manipulation of the symbols was the general problem of the national cult of the hero. “Is this not a unique practice,” asked Benjamin Rush, “in the history of nations thus to perpetuate the memories of their benefactors and deliv­erers? I exclude from this question the homage that has been paid by all nations to the birthday of the Saviour of the world.” 33 Rush believed that the motive was deification of the founders, and that motive surely ac­counted for the movement’s social success.

Washington’s birthday grew from a Federalists’ celebration to a national holiday, and the analogy with Christ, from which Rush recoiled, was finally proclaimed publicly. “From the first ages of the world,” Representative Benjamin C. Howard declared in Congress on February 13, 1847, “the records of all times furnished only two instances of birthdays being commemorated after the death of the individual: those two were the 22d of February and 25d of Decem­ber.” The epitaph for Washington’s mother consequently also became “To ‘Mary the Mother of Washington,’ ” and alluding to this inscription a clergyman by the name of J. N. Danforth exclaimed on July 4, 1847, “‘To Mary the Mother of Washington’ … we all owe all the mighty debt due from mankind to her immortal son.”34

The parallel between Wash­ington and Christ was reflected very early in Commemoration of Wash­ington, a lithograph by J. J. Barralet after the painting of an unknown artist that presented Washington in a typical resurrection scene. He is departing the tomb, which is flanked by the grieving figures of America and Freedom, and he is being guided heavenward by two angels. The ascension itself is shown in a lithograph by H. Weishaupt after a painting by Samuel Moore, The Apotheosis of Washington (ca. 1800); Washing­ton is borne upward in the arms of Faith and Love, surrounded by thevirtues in a wreath of light, while below, Columbia and the orphaned states mourn him.35  This transfigured Washington, finally, was granted a certain public status through Constantino Brumidi’s fresco, Apotheosis of Washington (1865), in the cupola of the Capitol rotunda. With the presence of Wash­ington at the architectural center of the only national temple the Ameri­can people erected for themselves (Rufus Choate), the elevation of Wash­ington to heroic stature assumed the form of a national cult, the only admissible form for Americans.36

The public and the private element, that is, become blurred very spe­cifically in the cult of Washington, as the example of the Washington Monument shows. The 1799 resolution of Congress provided for a tomb in Washington, but regional, political, and family resistance brought this plan to nought. After 1832 private initiative had its turn. In 1848 the Washington National Monument Society laid the cornerstone, but build­ing was stopped in 1856 because of a lack of funds. Only in 1885, after a quite unpleasant confrontation concerning financing, the plans, and the actual construction, was the memorial site finally dedicated.37  The nation was more generous with other honors: not only was the capital city named after the hero in his lifetime, but so were a state and countless counties and communities. It is characteristic for the mixing of public and private that the congressional delegates named the new capital in 1791 without having the legal authorization to do so.38

But the written and spoken word more than all other cultic acts has anchored the founder in the consciousness of the society. The panegyric to the living, the eulogy to the dead Washington, and the yearly memorial rites, the declamatory liturgy on the birthday of the nation and its founder finally formed a “sacred life” (Boorstin), a binding paradigm of republi­can existence. The basic pattern was furnished by Mason Locke Weems, an occasional preacher, author, and printer of devotional literature, “an itinerant salesman of salvation and printed matter.”39 His Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (1800) describes the hero of American chosenness as the exemplary reification of virtues (religiosity, patriotism, magnanimity, industry, moderation, and fairness), with clearly antimilitary and antiaristocratic tendencies. This paradigm is informed by Fausto Socinus’ life of Jesus, humanized and embellished with colonial middle-class morality, such as we find in the syllabus The Life and Mor­als of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson, which is made up primarily of material from Matthew and Luke.40

This Arian religiosity lightened the parallels between Jesus and Washington and contributed much to the public apotheosis of Washington. Boorstin considers Weems’s Life to be perhaps the most influential book ever written about American history.41 It suffices here to refer to Edward V. Everett’s The Character of Washing­ton (1856), a peroration its author delivered 128 times (from 1856 to 1860) in order to finance the purchase of Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, to serve as a public shrine.42 Today numerous studies deal with Washington’s apotheosis in the American consciousness, and it is there­fore sufficient to sketch the situation briefly insofar as it is pertinent to our subject.

This political rhetoric even referred back to the ancient sun sym­bol—the image of a center that moves majestically and throws its light on all that there is—which the preachers of the Great Awakening used constantly with reference to Christ, until, in 1770, it was finally applied to George Whitefield, the Great Awakener, in a eulogy.43 “Washington is in the clear upper sky. These other stars [Adams and Jefferson!] have now joined the American constellation; they circle around their center, and the Heavens beam with new light,”44 Daniel Webster exclaimed in 1826. The same metaphor was used by Lincoln: “To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splen­dor leave it shining on.” In the invocation of that which is the light and the life (“Washington is the mightiest name on earth”) is experienced the holy conturbation out of which the way and the goal of right action is found (in this case, freeing man from the slavery of alcohol).45

From these testimonials follows the central significance of the apo­theosis of Washington for the nexus of founding and order in American self-understanding. This situation is first made clear in all its dimensions on the occasion of an event in consequence of which Webster conjured up the American firmament: On July 4, 1826, Adams and Jefferson both died.46 The nation was deeply shocked, moved, and gripped by this enor­mous sign from God. The apotheosis of Washington was followed by the “apotheosis of 1826” (Peterson): “Hitherto, fellow-citizens, the Fourth of July had been celebrated among us, only as the anniversary of our independence, and its votaries had been merely human beings. But at its last recurrence . . . the anniversary, it may well be termed, of the liberty of man—Heaven itself, mingled visibly in the celebration, and hallowed the day anew by a double apotheosis.”47

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, politicians and their electorates, ministers and their congregations, jour­nalists and their readers repeated the single theme: God had given His people a visible sign that He had not abandoned them. “With the simul­taneous deaths of Adams and Jefferson, the past seemed ready at last, its contents prepared to be a model.”48 “When Adams and Jefferson died in 1826, their departure separated dramatically the Revolutionary super­men from mortals searching for America’s true meaning. Liberty and freedom came to be established national features, not to be criticized. This produced a Trust from the wondrous men of ’76.”49

The “apotheosis of 1826” was prefigured by the “second coming of Washington”: Lafayette’s journey through the United States from August, 1824, to September, 1825.50 Lafayette, once a major general in the Con­tinental army, forty years later responded to an invitation tendered by the president and Congress to return to the United States. A guest of state, he traveled through all the states of the Republic, visited the battlefields of the War of Independence, embraced venerable old comrades, and had honors heaped upon him. It was a triumphal procession in the truest sense of the word. Roman rituals were deliberately imitated; but more important was another reference to the classical republics:

“A follower of Lafayette’s itinerary might well have concluded that Rome was Amer­ica’s principal rival and competitor in a contest of public gratitude.”51 “As men with a classical orientation, the founding generation had been uncomfortably aware of the historic charge that republics were notori­ously ungrateful to their benefactors . . . ‘Let it never be said of us as of Rome and of Athens, that ingratitude is the common vice of Repub­lics.'”52

The people’s spontaneous republican gratitude proved, for one, that the American Republic had by no means fallen prey to the errors of the ancient republics, which had doomed them; for another, however, the old European constitutionalist Lafayette was a particularly suitable object to serve as an example of voluntary and free public honor and gratitude, to prove to the aristocratic societies of the Old World, with their pomp-burdened compulsion to venerate princes, the superiority of a republican social order.

Fred Somkin described the trip as “something in the nature of a communal pageant, enacted over and over on numerous stages.”53 This “interaction between the American people and the ‘Na­tion’s Guest'” was not restricted to paying off a national debt of grati­tude; it was given its real social relevance for the American consciousness in the context of the apotheosis of Washington—that is, with the back­ground of the “identification of Lafayette . . . with the most potent father image in American history: George Washington,” whose “adopted son” the Marquis de Lafayette liked to call himself.54

Lafayette’s return as the “favorite son” of a “common father”55 also meant the return of the George Washington of the War of Independence, the hero beyond and outside all subsequent political controversy. Lafayette alone represented the grandeur and virtue of 1776 in all its purity, without the stains inevi­tably incurred on the harsher side of day-to-day politics. The incarnation of genuine grandeur and virtue in Lafayette was finally confirmed by the historical fact that he fought in the war as a foreigner without personal interest, merely from “love of liberty,” inflamed by “an ardent desire for the general welfare of mankind.” He was “publicmindedness” incar­nate.56 “The return of the past in the form of a Washington surrogate was an event all the more thrilling because of Lafayette’s long absence from America. He now seemed ‘like one arisen from the dead.'”57

The American nation experienced a second coming. Somkin shows that the messianic theme was universally present: “Having seemingly come back ‘from the tomb,’ Lafayette was greeted at Camden, South Carolina, as One who redeemed me while yet I was not; and who is the redeemer of posterities which are not.'”58 Lafayette’s self-sacrifice, an­other passage notes, “came ‘nearer the comparison with the saviour, in relation to America, than any other man of whom he had any ac­count.'”59 This come-again Washington was able to confirm wavering Americans in his own view that the hopes of 1776 had truly come to pass: “No one was so qualified as Our Father, the good Lafayette’ to assimilate the Americans of the 1820’s and their material achievements to the value of those who had formulated the original meaning of the republic.”60 “As a triumph over time, and as a symbolic restoration of the era of acknowledged virtue, Lafayette’s benison was that of the dead Washington.”61

On one hand the “republican worship” of Lafayette stressed “the transcendent nature of the hero’s morality,” and on the other it opened “new paths of contact between the heroic model and his republican admirers.”62 This last point indicates Lafayette’s role for the psychosocial substantiation of the experience of founding in the post-revolutionary generation. It was this generation, according to the gov­ernor of Alabama, that derived the greatest advantage from this “most signal recurrence to first principles, that Lafayette symbolizes.”63 The en­counter with Lafayette is an act of return to the original substance of order of the founding principles. By this “patently sacramental function” the American welcome of Lafayette testifies to “a general awareness that the production of the type of virtue upon which ‘the purity of … re­publican institutions’ depended could no longer be safely left to time alone.”64

Lafayette was thus expected to bridge the abyss between gen­erations, “between the fast-disappearing era of the founders and the already arrived age of steam.”65 “Only the purity of Lafayette, which had come down stainless from the days of the Fathers, could bring about such a time-defying reunion of the generations.”66 Lafayette’s reception made manifest the basic structure of the nexus between founding and order in the American consciousness, but at the same time it becomes evident that the societal legitimation of the content of order of the founding principles in the future will no longer be assured by living persons: “Looking back with a stabbing sense of loss, the nation pressed Lafayette to its heart in a last communion with its youthful self. When he was gone the world of the Founders had vanished forever.”67 This clean break could not be overlooked in the apotheosis of 1826.

Fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the process of be­coming a nation had reached a certain end. The Fourth of July, 1826, “marked the solemn termination of one great epoch of our Republic—it is the sublime commencement of another.”68 The “heroic age” (Jeffer­son), at the same time a golden age, had found its worth and edifying conclusion. The War of 1812 had intensified the consciousness of shared nationality and had set in motion ample emotional energies to promote national integration, as the failure of the Hartford Convention of 1814 had proved.

This consensus tentatively overcame political, regional, and economic tensions and found its expression in a thorough process of de­mocratizing the state constitutions.69 Property qualifications for white voters were largely eliminated. The Era of Good Feelings had begun around 1815. Such great judges as Lemuel Shaw in Massachusetts modi­fied the common law and adapted it to the social and economic structures already emerging in outline in the society that from then on reached con­tinental dimensions. The population had quadrupled since 1776, roads and canals were opening up the continent, the legendary age of steam began; Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin and had established the uniform-assembly system, which worked along the lines of modern in­dustrial mass production.

This progress was backed by the political economy of the paradig­matic republic. Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and John Quincy Adams practiced the political economics of the fathers in the “American System”:

“In four years the Adams Administration spent almost as much on internal improvements as had been allocated in the previous twenty-four. Indeed, by 1826 the government was the largest single entrepreneur in the country. It handled more funds, employed more people, purchased more goods, and borrowed more operating and investment capital than any other enterprise. For generations that are reputed to have believed in weak and minimal government, the Founding Fathers and their first off­spring created a rather large and active institution.”70

The “American System” had created the psychological and political conditions for devel­opment of the productive resources; during the nineteenth century this process was reflected in a dynamic industrial economic society with a capitalist cast. But it was precisely the success of the political economy of the paradigmatic republic that evoked a centripetal reaction: an indus­trial Northeast, an agrarian West, and a plantation economy in the South increasingly found themselves in political and socioeconomic conflict. Consequently the Era of Good Feelings crumbled in the jubilee year: John Quincy Adams was the president of a minority and had been elected by the House of Representatives; his opponents suspected political logroll­ing and the dirty work of northern financial and manufacturing interests behind the scenes.

With his massive program to modernize the Republic under strict national control (“the American System”) Adams stepped before the nation at a moment when the traditional groupings and their complaints were defining the image anew; local rights and states’ rights were in greater demand. The followers of the defeated Jackson, especially those in the slave-owning South, were up in arms against Adams’ admin­istrative program, which anticipated a centrally controlled expansion of the navy, roads, canals, education, and research with federal funds. Divisiveness was also rife in foreign policy concerning possible support of revolutionary movements abroad in South America and Greece. Not for the last time was the isolationist tradition of Washington’s farewell ad­dress at loggerheads with the revolutionary tradition of the Declaration of Independence.

In this situation the nation, vacillating between fear and hope, un­certainty and confidence, was fiercely receptive to the good news that God had by no means forgotten it and its benefactors. The providential event of the double apotheosis told Americans that their fathers were philosopher-statesmen, whose divinely inspired words and deeds con­veyed the truth of their own existence and made up the spiritual content of the emerging national corpus mysticum: “In this most singular coin­cidence, the finger of Providence is plainly visible! It hallows the Declaration of Independence as the Word of God, and is the bow in the Heaven, that promises its principles shall be eternal, and their dissemi­nation universal over the earth.”71

The simultaneous death of the two fathers blurred those elements that divided Adams and Jefferson. The respectful friendship that had united them was real in this interpretation, but forgotten were the bitter intellec­tual and political quarrels between Adams the Federalist and Jefferson the Republican. The insults and press feuds between their respective fol­lowers, the different casts of mind, all were forgotten and instead were celebrated as variations on the same American spirit. The Era of Good Feelings became spiritually and symbolically fused with the fundamentals of the Republic on which any number—or at least almost any num­ber—of bitter political, intellectual, and socioeconomic conflicts were to be settled.

It was only this foundation that allowed the dynamization of the in­dividualistic self in the movement of the mental, political, and economic laissez-faire, with the result that the failure in the “imperial self” of the present had not robbed the order of the “Common Man” of every sub­stantial reason:

“The passing of Jefferson and Adams was a dramatic moment in the growth of American self-consciousness. The imagination working upon the event, made of it a fable of the republic. The fable explained the miraculous, brought man into a community of loyalty and belief, and turned the nation’s loss into a triumph. It was the creation of a pervasive national faith reaching for justification and here finding it. Providence, Union, Heritage.”72

The Memory of the Founders

The revitalization and regeneration of the “national faith,” however, had to take place through spiritual, ritualistic, and pragmatic recurrence to the Founding Fathers. “The Republic will cease to be, when it ceases to remember, to revere, and to imitate the virtues of its founders.”73 Samuel Knapp recommended to the young men of Boston that they imi­tate the youth of Rome who were said yearly to have sought inspiration at the tomb of the religious founder Numa: “Go, ye young men of my country, oftener than once a year, to visit the tombs of your fathers. No man was ever great who did not live much among the dead.”74 Here the origin of the American experience and the instrument of its existential liquifaction become palpable; but it also becomes clear why questioning this origin must mean questioning American society itself.

Adams and Jefferson each left behind a kind of Founding Father’s last will and testament. Adams did so in his reply to the Boston organizers of the semicentennial celebration, Jefferson in his letter to the mayor of the capital. Let us recall Adams’ self-understanding as a Founding Father and his debate with Rush concerning the meaning of such testaments. He was opposed to apotheosis but subscribed to spiritual patriarchy, deeply con­vinced of the truth that penetrated society through the founders. But there is evidence not only of a common private and individual continuity from the founders to the apotheosis of 1826, but also of a public conti­nuity, which we must briefly document.

On September 15, 1790—representatives and government had just settled in the provisional capital of Philadelphia—the College of Phila­delphia issued invitations to a series of lectures “On Law.” The lecturer was James Wilson, 75 a prominent leader of the Revolution in Pennsylva­nia, influential delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a judge of the Supreme Court under the new government, and a tireless land specula­tor who would come to a bad end in a shabby small-town inn while flee­ing from his creditors. This lawyer was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation’s political class; his Lectures on Law may be consid­ered among the few theoretical achievements in the political literature of his day.

His inaugural lecture was one of the great social events of that Decem­ber. The president and vice-president, with their ladies, attended, as did the leading figures of the administration and Congress. Before this audi­ence Wilson developed the theme of the founders’ self-interpretation, which was to have its national apotheosis in 1826. We are familiar with the argument’s elements. The New England understanding of history and heroes, already nationalized in George Chalmers’ Political Annals—that is, augmented with Penn and Calvert—was brought fully up to date: Wil­son designed a “temple of fame” for the American patriots and heroes and furnished the individual niches; one place at the center remained empty: “For the most worthy”—George Washington. 76 The founding of the nation—which, according to its origin in “truth and freedom,” goes back to an “original social compact” (the Mayflower Compact) 77 —gave mankind a paradigm surpassing even ancient Greece. 78 The excellence of the nation was expressed in virtue: the foundation of the American character was “love of liberty” and “love of law”—that is, love for rational principles that are accessible to common sense and are basic to human existence in society purely and simply. 79 Wilson understood the founding of the American nation as the glowing realization of the “just and genuine principles of society.” 80 These signified the “foundations of political truth,” and in their establishment Wilson saw a “foundation of human happiness” of unknown dimensions. 81

The practice of the basic virtues of the “free and independent man” as the source of sovereignty meant par­ticipation in the public affairs of the Commonwealth—that is, acting in “this public character.” 82 These intellectual and ethical preconditions of a functioning republic required an enormous education of subsequent generations. According to Wilson, such education is offered by the “sci­ence of law”: on one hand it is a “historical science,” providing access to the ancestors; on the other it is a science of principles—that is, a theo­retical science—and communicates the “general principles of law and obligation, law of nature, law of nations, municiple law, man as indi­vidual, member of society, of a confoederation and part of the great com­monwealth of nations”; finally, it is the “science of government” in the narrower sense, dealing with the law, the constitution, and the govern­ment of the United States. 83

Let us concentrate on the significance of this December 15, 1790: Wilson brought the dead and living founders together with the subse­quent generation, the students at the College of Philadelphia. The con­tinuation of virtuousness assembled in the “Hall of Fame,” the source of republican order and the excellence of the shining American character in the young people, required the conscious transmission of this virtuousness. Wilson took on this mission as a teacher of the “science of law,” which allowed him the understanding of law and liberty from which the basic virtues of love of liberty and love of law grow. This educational process must be gone through by every free citizen of the Republic. “Law education,” according to Wilson, is instrumental in preserving the found­ing’s “genuine and just principles of society.”

Wilson’s inaugural lecture anticipates the crucial passages of Washing­ton’s farewell address of 1796, in which Hamilton and Washington, somewhat like a will, expounded in trenchant summary their concept of order:

“Of all dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of hu­man happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popu­lar government. . . . Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” 84

Our interpretation of Wilson is confirmed by John Adams himself. Influenced by the threat of an American-French passage at arms, young recruits of the city of Philadelphia, the district of South Wark, and the Northern Liberties had directed a declaration of loyalty to President Adams in which, “actuated by the same principles on which our fore­fathers achieved their independence,” they expressed their indignation at French policies. 85 In his reply the president claimed for himself the “privi­lege of a father” and recommended to the young men constant occupa­tion with science and ethics as the foundation of the nation’s well-being. But then he continued:

“Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit in general to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors.” 86

This message is not distinguished by any par­ticular originality; of far greater importance is John Adams’ commentary in an 1813 letter to Jefferson in which he defended himself against the accusation that he was a bigoted enemy of scientific progress. After expressly stating that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were to be counted among the cited “ancestors,” he elucidated the function, con­tent, and quality of the “general principles.” “Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes?” Adams asked him­self. “There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabap­tists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priesteyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists.”

The only trait common to this motley crew, in Adams’ view, lay in the fact that all of them were raised “in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general prin­ciples of English and American Liberty.” From this he concluded, “The general Principles, on which the Fathers achieved Independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young gentlemen could unite.” For, he noted, there were general principles of Christian­ity—as mental makeup underlying the respective dogmas—shared by all sects and general principles of American and English liberty, on which all parties in America had agreed by a vast majority in order to claim inde­pendence on their basis.

This aggregate of principles, however, is by no means arbitrary in its substance and therefore not dependent on progress in natural science or technology, since it explicates the structures of a reality beyond human grasp. Adams insisted “that those general principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty, are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.” He could not, therefore, imagine any discoveries that would contradict these “general principles.” 87

This commentary already took Adams a considerable step closer to the apotheosis of 1826: the existing mental-political frame of mind of an American citizen is acquired, preserved, and handed down through exe­gesis of the words, deeds, and writings of the fathers—though Adams would surely have protested energetically against such a formal construc­tion of the tradition. Such a development, after all, debased Wilson’s “sci­ence of law” and Adams’ “science of government” to the handmaiden of monumental history. Its res gestae and personae dramatis constituted an American cosmos that assured the meaningfulness of the society and al­lowed broad scope for possible actions, behavior, and decisions within a rapidly changing social and geographic context. From the speculations about founding and fathers—with Washington, the Declaration of Inde­pendence, and the Constitution at the core—grew the “social myth” of the nation as a “presentation of the ultimate speculations of metaphysics, including cosmology, in a coherent system of symbols.” 88 The concepts “patriotic faith” (Peterson), “social myth” (Elliott), or “civil religion” (Bellah) are here used, pending more detailed analysis.

The Normative Power of the Symbolism of the Constitution

The aggregate of symbols89 of self-interpretation was from the beginning extremely flexible, dynamic, fluid, and open to manipulation. For a long time important elements were objects of controversy and were only hesi­tantly offered up to the consensus omnium. As long as the strong confrontations between the Federalists and Re­publicans went on, the text of the Declaration of Independence remained controversial; it was only in the Era of Good Feelings and following the democratization of the state constitutions around 1810 that the Decla­ration of Independence became a noncontroversial component of the na­tional canon as “Charter of the Democracy.” 90

The other great normative document of this canon, the Constitution, underwent a similar process. John Adams reflected from the first on the “melancholy lot of humanity,” that “any constitution of government within human contrivance” was short of immortality 91 ; he, like Hamilton, presumably revered only the English constitution. When, during the 1790s, he was plagued by the fear that the people’s moral fiber was weakening and that republican govern­ment would drown in bloody anarchy, he entertained the idea of an Anglicization of the Constitution and toyed with the idea of making some offices inheritable. As a result, in his inaugural address (1797) the brand-new president was forced to stress his loyalty to the Constitution. Jefferson warned of those who “look at constitutions with sanctimo­nious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” 92 He pleaded for changing the Constitution every twenty years.

From 1787 to 1788, writing under the name of Giles Hickory, Noah Webster spoke out vigorously against a “perpetual constitution on parch­ment.” “Americans’ efforts to fix a form of government in ‘perpetuity,’ Webster argued, supposed a ‘perfect wisdom and probity in the framers; which is both arrogant and impudent.’ Indeed, ‘the very attempt to make perpetual constitutions is the assumption of a right to control the opin­ions of future generations; and to legislate for those over whom we have as little authority as we have over a nation in Asia.'” 93 Representative George McDuffie uttered similar sentiments in Congress as late as 1824. He spoke against the argument that the constitutional revisions would weaken “the popular veneration for that instrument.” “Nothing can be more dangerous than the inculcation of this sort of superstitious idolatry in this country,” he elaborated, since such an attitude would obstruct any corrections in a necessarily flawed human institution. 94

It very soon be­came evident, however, that one need not exclude the other. The alter­native, according to Nathaniel Chipman, consisted “‘in the idea of incor­porating, in the constitution itself, a plan of reformation,’ enabling the people periodically and peacefully to return to the first principles, as Machiavelli had urged.” 95 The institution of amendments to the Consti­tution paved the way for the document’s dual function. It became both instrument and symbol. “As an instrument it must be viewed hard-headedly and used flexibly to promote the people’s welfare in the present and future. As a symbol it is part of the mass mind, capable of arousing intense popular hysteria, loaded with a terrible inertia, its face turned toward the past.” 96

The skill and success of the Federalist leadership of the new govern­ment; the powerful propaganda of journalists, ministers, teachers, and politicians; and a certain economic prosperity—all allowed, after the anti-Federalists had been mollified by the formulation of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution to disappear as the object of controversy concerning the basic order of the nation. In answer to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Madison and Jefferson had formulated the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, furnishing the opposition with their own interpretation of the Constitution; this step had major consequences. It was based on rec­ognizing the sovereignty of the individual states and their right to nullify unconstitutional laws.

The decision by Jefferson and his Republicans, after assuming power, to accept the frame established by the Constitution put an end to contro­versy on principles concerning the Constitution:

“A leaning toward con­stitutional literalism, a tendency engendered by some of the strongest currents in Anglo-American thought and powerfully reinforced by Anti-federalist prophecies of constitutional decay, prepared the way for con­stitutional apotheosis. It also does much to explain the appearance of an opposition party which would quickly elevate the constitution as the pal­ladium of American liberty.” 97

When, in 1854, the abolitionist William L. Garrison burned copies of the Constitution, this deed alone placed him outside the national consensus. His action, like Seth Luther’s “Address to the Working Men of New England” (1833) and Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (1852.), was in the tradition of the “Fourth of July heresies” that emerged in the 1830s; these pro­tested against the national ritual in antipatriotic speeches and reminded their listeners on the Fourth of July of the unfulfilled promises in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 98

By such behavior, however, even protest confirmed the canonical na­ture of the documents. Heresy presupposes national consensus. As a rule all political and social conflicts were now waged within the terms of the Constitution. From this time on, in its battles with the administration the opposition accused those in power of betraying the Constitution and of passing unconstitutional laws. The written Constitution became the out­ward and visible symbol of all society’s aspirations, its unity and conti­nuity. The Constitution was the link connecting the revolutionary fer­ment of 1776, the institutional arrangement of the political class of 1787, and the “revolution” of 1800. It concretized the ordering power accu­mulated by the fathers: “Here was the document into which the Found­ing Fathers had poured their wisdom as into a vessel.” 99

Constitution and Declaration of Independence, together with other sacred documents, are exhibited in the entrance hall to the National Archives, for public wor­ship:

“Around the turn of the century . . . the Constitution actually be­came, quite literally, the people’s political Bible. Children learn at their mother’s knee the belief that they are to consider it as such. The paternal sic credo, stat fides mea pro ratione guaranteed the correctness of the belief. What was later read into the Constitution was another matter. The more wildly the battle of the tongues raged, the more loudly was heard the call for a Constitution, the more fervently each voice swore not to deviate from it by so much as a hair.”100

North and South waged the Civil War in the name of the Constitution, but this event nevertheless taught Americans that there were limits to what the symbolism of the Constitution could encompass, and since that time they have more cau­tiously distinguished between the instrumental and the symbolic nature of the Constitution. But in spite of the Civil War and other violent inter­nal confrontations, the Constitution as symbol of the nation’s conscious­ness has penetrated so far as to create a series of habitual reactions in specific social and political situations. This “cultural constitutionalism” (Kämmen) is reflected in democratic practices, most particularly those relating to cooperation and the solution of conflicts in private and public affairs.

A further product of the specific American experience, the “divine right of judges” (of the Supreme Court) moved only slowly toward the noncontroversial sector. In spite of Marbury v. Madison, the Court had not become a noncontroversial element in the political process. Jefferson was a bitter opponent of judicial review. 101 Lincoln was willing to grant it only in specific cases, while he rejected the constitutional implications of judicial review. 102 Max Lerner regarded the divine right of judges as the result of a pattern that consists of the “fetishism of the Constitution,” the claim by the Supreme Court to exercise the office of guardian of the Constitution, and the Anglo-Saxon cult of the independent and infallible judge.

In 1861, when the insufficient capacity of the constitutional symbol­ism to solve conflicts became evident, the question concerning a better instrument became urgent:

“The fetishism of the Constitution, as a flex­ible instrument open to various constructions, was in itself inadequate. In short, a faith was not enough. It had to be a faith deposited in a power. That power was the judicial power. The function of interpreting the constitution had to be specialized in a single tribunal.”103

But the precondi­tion was that the intellectual order objectified in the normative document as the expression of a “higher law” accessible to the justices in their ju­dicial decisions was not only bound by but also recognized as mandatory in the society. “We transfer our sense of the definite and timeless charac­ter of the constitution to the judges who expound it”; if the Constitution incorporates the “ultimate wisdom of government,” it follows “that men versed in its lore must reach their conclusions, not by the paths of ordi­nary men, but by some mysterious and inspired processes.” They are the discoverers of an ultimate truth, “priests in the service of a godhead.” l04

Only with this condition can the normative oracle of the Supreme Court justices be released from the sphere of controversy. Wilson’s description of the Supreme Court as a permanent constitutional convention again leads to a direct reference to the apotheosis of 1826: at “the moment of Truth” of the Supreme Court decision, the justices, representing the na­tion, vitalize the original substance of the founding, repeat the work of the fathers in the political and social context of their own time, and thus authenticate the meaning and security of the society—elements that al­ways remain questionable on the pragmatic level of power and social existence.



1. Compare Dunn, “Seventeenth Century English Historians of America,” in Seven­teenth Century America, ed. J. M. Smith (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959), 195-225. On Ameri­can historiography, see M. Kraus, The Writing of American History (Norman, Okla., 1953); E. N. Saveth, ed., Understanding the American Past (Boston, 1954); D. D. van Tassel, Recording America’s Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Stud­ies in America, 1607-1884 (Chicago, 1960); H. Wish, The American Historian (New York, 1960). For general discussions of the problem of American historical apocalypse, see C. I. Sanford, The Quest for Paradise (Urbana, Ill.); M. Eliade, “Paradis et utopie: Géogra­phie mythique et Eschatologie,” in Vom Sinn der Utopie (Zurich, 1964); H. R. Niebuhr, The Kingdom of Cod in America (New York, 1959); M. Holloway, Heavens on Earth (New York, 1966); Tuveson, Redeemer Nation.

2. Miller and Johnson, eds., Puritans, I, 163.

3. P. Miller, New England Mind, II, 135; compare also Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 9-20.

4. P. Miller, New England Mind, II, 189.

5. Ibid., 135.

6. Wector, Hero in America, 42.

7. Ibid.

8. Albanese, Sons of the Fathers, 46; compare P. Shaw, American Patriots and the Ritu­als of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1981). 9). Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 3.

10. Ibid., 5; see also Colbourn, Lamp of Experience; J. T. Kerens, Providence and Pa­ triotism (Charlottesville, Va., 1978).

11. Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 47-48.

12. Dunn, “Seventeenth-Century English Historians of America,” in Seventeenth-Century America, ed. Smith; Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 6-12, 46ff.

13. The self-consciousness of regional history rejected this tendency well into the nine­teenth century.

14. T. Jefferson, “A Summary View,” in Papers, ed. J. P. Boyd (Princeton, 1950), I, 121-22, especially on the role of the “Saxon ancestors.” See also Bland, Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, 7.

15. Colbourn, Lamp of Experience; B. Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revo­lution (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), I, 52ff. For a general discussion of the Saxon origins of the British constitution, see Pocock, Ancient Constitution; D. C. Douglas, English Scholars, 1660—1730 (London, 1951); S. Kliger, The Goths in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1952.); J. E. C. Hill, “Norman Yoke,” in Puritanism and Revolution (New York, 1964).

16. J. Adams, Works, III, 543.

17. Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 57 and passim.

18. Ebenezer Hazard to Thomas Jefferson, August 23, 1774, in Jefferson, Papers, I, 144.

19. Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 60-65; Boorstin, The Americans, II, 368; F. Somkin, Unquiet Eagle: Memory and Desire in the Idea of American Freedom, 1815 to 1860 (New York, 1967), 184-106.

20. Boorstin, The Americans, II, 369-73.

21. G. Bancroft, History of the United States (Boston, 1934-74), III, 4-11; G. Ban­croft, “The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race,” in Literary and Historical Miscellanies (New York, 1855). Compare also H. Kohn, American Nationalism (New York, 1957), 2.8-32.; Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, especially 137ff.; Somkin, Unquiet Eagle, 68-80, 184-106.

22. F. Nietzsche, Werke, ed. K. Schlechta (Darmstadt, 1966), I, 220 (English from Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. A. Collins [New York, 1949], 13).

23. Nietzsche, Werke, 225 (English from Nietzsche, Use and Abuse of History, 17).

24. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History,” in The Complete Works (Boston, 1903 — 1904), I, 8.

25. Everett, Origin and Character of the Old Parties. Compare Peterson, Jefferson Im­age, 86.

26. Boorstin, The Americans, II, 327—37, 482.

27. J. Adams, Works, VII, 281-82.

28. John Adams to Lloyd, April 24, 1815, in J. Adams, Works, X, 164.

29. John Adams to Webb, September 10, 1885, in J. Adams, Works, IX, 541.

30. Quoted in P. Smith, John Adams, II, 1022.

31. D. S. Freeman, George Washington (New York, 1948 —57); VII, 648-653; G.Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, N.Y., 1984), 23, 31-35.

 32. A. Mathews, “Celebrations of Washington’s Birthday,” Col. Soc. of Mass. Pub. (1906), 252—58; C. Warren, “How Politics Intruded into the Washington Centenary of 1832,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, LXIV (1931), 143 — 64; C. Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, II (1945), 237—72.

33. Benjamin Rush to John Adams, February 18, 1808, in Rush, Letters, II, 960. Even during the American War of Independence, Rush opposed the movement to turn Washing­ton into a hero. In 1777 he was among those critics of the commander in chief who seri­ously considered replacing him with the victor at Saratoga, Horatio Gates; compare L. H. Butterfield, “Rush and Washington,” in Rush, Letters, II, 1197—1108.

34. Quoted in Boorstin, The Americans, II, 353.

35. Compare illustrations in J. Adams, Spur of Fame, between 148 and 150; Wills, Cincinnatus, 74—75.

36. Compare illustration and description in We the People: The Story of the United States Capitol (Washington, D.C., 1963), 72ff. The quotation from Choate appears in the Foreword.

37. Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 105 — 106; Boorstin, The Americans, II,


38. Boorstin, The Americans, 340.

39. Ibid.; Wills, Cincinnatus, 39—53.

40. Compare H. W. Foote, The Religion of Thomas Jefferson (Boston, 1960).

41. W. A. Bryan, “The Genesis of Weems’ Life of Washington,” Americana, XXXVI (1942), 147—65; M. Cunliffe, Introduction to The Life of Washington, by M. L. Weems (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); W. A. Bryan, George Washington in the American Literature (New York, 1951); Wector, Hero in America, 130—36; Boorstin, The Americans, II, 340—45. Other important contributions to the “sacred life” were J. Marshall’s little-read The Life of George Washington (Philadelphia, 1804—1807), J. Sparks’s Life of George Washington (Boston, 1839), and his edition of the Writings (1834 — 37).

42. E. Everett, Orations and Speeches on Various Occasions (Boston, 1868), IV, 3 — 51.

43. Nathaniel Whitaker, in 1770, commenting on the death of Whitefield: “So bright a sun descending below the horizon, whose benign beams have long enlightened and warmed so great a part of our hemisphere,” in Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 147.

44. Quoted in Wector, Hero in America, 172.

45. Temperance Address, Springfield, February 22, 1842., in J. Adams, Works, I, 279.

46. See M. D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York, 1960), 3-14; F. N. Thorpe, “Adams and Jefferson, 1826-1926,” North American Review, CCXXIII (1926); L. H. Butterfield, “The Jubilee of Independence, July 4, 1826,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, LXI (1953), 119—40.

47. Quoted in Boorstin, The Americans, II, 347. See also William Wirt, “A Discourse on the Lives and Characters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,” in Eloquence of the United States, ed. E. P. Willston (Middletown, Conn., 1827), V, 454-503.

48. Nagel, Sacred Trust, 56.

49. Ibid., 54. Nagel’s study of American self-interpretation in the period 1798-1898 provides a wealth of interesting material and important insights but lacks a clear analytic structure. Nagel interprets the years 1815-1848 as a single epoch, while I agree with Peterson, Somkin, Williams, Anderson, and others in assuming a break to come only during the presidencies of Adams and Jackson.

50. Somkin, Unquiet Eagle, 151; compare the detailed account on 131—74.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.. 137

53. Ibid., 136

54. Ibid., 149

55. Ibid., 150

56. Ibid., 163.

57. Ibid., 153.

58. Ibid., 164.

59. Ibid., 166.

60. Ibid., 156.

61. Ibid., 157.

62. Ibid., 167.

63. Ibid., 165.

64. Ibid., 169.

65. Ibid., 170.

66. Ibid., 173.

67. Ibid., 174.

68. Quoted in Peterson, The Jefferson Image, 7.

69. Compare M. D. Peterson, ed., Democracy, Liberty, and Property (Indianapolis, 1966); C. Williamson, American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (Princeton, 1960).

70. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 211.

71. Quoted in Peterson, The Jefferson Image, 6.

72. Ibid., 5.

73. Ibid., 8.

74. Ibid., 9. Compare also Nagel, Sacred Trust, 9, 53, 75 — 76.

 75. Compare Page Smith, James Wilson (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1956), particularly 310-41.

76. J. Wilson, Lectures on Law (Philadelphia, 1804), 8, Vol. I of Works, ed. B. Wilson.

77. Ibid., 6.

78. Ibid., 4-5.

79. Ibid., 9—10.

80. Ibid., 6.

81. Ibid., 23, 26.

82. Ibid., 11ff.

83. Ibid., 41 ff.; compare J. Gebhardt, Common Sense and Urteilskraft.

84. J. M. Richardson, éd., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Washington, D.C., 1896-99), I, 210.

85. Quoted in John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813, in J. Adams, Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 338.

86. J. Adams, Works, IX, 188.

89. When I make use of the concept of symbol, it refers first of all to Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 16a4ff., as language symbols; but it also includes nonverbal symbols inso­far as they share with verbal symbols the purpose of interpreting the psychic experience of reality under the irrevocable condition of the Intersubjectivity of all human existence in society. I refer here to A. Schütz, Collected Papers (The Hague, 1962—66), I, 287-336. For the concept of symbol in general, see K. Jaspers, Philosophie (Berlin, 1932), III, 16; E. Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, Conn., 1944), 32ff.; T. J. J. Altizer et al., eds., Truth, Myth, and Symbol (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962).

90. P. Detweiler, “The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years,” William and Mary Quarterly, XIX (1962), 557-74.

91. John Adams to Brand to Hollis, October 18, 1787, in APM.

92. Thomas Jefferson to Kercheval, July 12, 1816, in Jefferson, Writings, XV, 35.

93. G. S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 377, 379.

94. C. S. Hyneman and G. W. Carey, eds., A Second Federalist (New York, 1967), 51.

95. G. S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 613. For the genesis of the amend­ment clause in the state constitution, see Adams, “Republikanismus,” 541-45.

96. M. Lerner, “Constitution and Court as Symbols,” Yale Law Journal, XLVI (1937), 1224. Also E. S. Corwin, “The Constitution as Instrument and Symbol,” American Political Science Review, XXX (1936), 1071-75; Elliot, “Constitution as the American Social Myth”; Schechter, “The Early History of the Tradition of the Constitution,” American Political Science Review, XXIX (1915), 707ff. It is worth noting that H. E. Holst, in Ver­fassung und Demokratie der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika (Berlin, 1884), I, 56-69, already gave a detailed account of the “canonization of the Constitution.”

97. Banning, “Republican Ideology and the Triumph of the Constitution,” 179.

98. Compare Lynd, Intellectual Origins, 140-41.

99. Lerner, “Constitution and Court as Symbols,” 1299.

100. Holst, Verfassung und Demokratie, I, 58. The belief in the integrating power of the constitutional symbolism found its classical expression in Daniel Webster’s “Second Speech on Foot’s Resolution” of January 26, 1830, in Writings and Speeches (Boston, 1903), VI, 3-75. To the present, the Constitution as an instrument has been far from adequate to the American reality in its pragmatic compromise between nation and con­federation.

101. Thomas Jefferson to Torrance, June 11, 1815, in Jefferson, Writings, XI, 471-75. Compare C. G. Haines, The American Doctrine of Judicial Supremacy (Berkeley, Calif., I93Z).

102. Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861,” in Collected Works, IV, 269.103. Lerner, “Constitution and Court as Symbol,” 1308; J. Gebhardt, “The Federalist,” in Klassiker des politischen Denkens, ed. H. Maier et al. (Munich, 1968),   101-102.

104. Lerner, “Constitution and Court as Symbol,” 1312.


This excerpt is from Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic. (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). This is the first part with parts two and three available; also see “Postwar Americanism,” “American Progressivism,” and “Americanism: Counterculture and Common Sense.”

Jürgen GebhardtJürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).

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