A lifetime ago, I took a couple of courses in American Civ from William Goetzman; Amazon nudged that memory by noting his Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism had come out. Although not getting much read lately, I ordered it. Yesterday, A&L linked to a discussion in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which supports A&L). Carlin Romano’s “Obama, Philosopher in Chief” uses Goetzmann as foil.
Romano summarizes the historian’s argument that America’s revolutionaries shaped Enlightenment thinking to define a unique synthesis that became American values – among these are “a reverence for principles, particularly individual liberty, a dedication to reason and the rational solution, a belief in order and at the same time constant change, [and] a talent for practicality.” This he contrasts with Obama’s nuance: “Obama plainly agrees with some of those views, but he proved subtler on his five-day international trip. He signaled what makes us wonderful without declaring that we’re wonderful. Leaving business moguls and Americanists at home, he relied on an entourage of ideas. The New York Times and others have joked that Obama increasingly sounds like a professor in chief, and there’s truth to that.” (Are these guys ever embarrassed by this level of purple?)
Romano then describes Obama’s Cairo speech as a “teach-in” which “combined the best of rhetoric and philosophy.” Indeed, “Obama’s most singular philosophical breakthrough was to artfully project the cosmopolitan idea that the U.S. president must care about non-Americans,” indeed, “to an extraordinary extent, Obama effectively announced that the U.S. president, because of the United States’ effect on and involvement with the rest of the world, must think of other global citizens as constituents.” His “teach-in” might be misleading. For instance, while it is probably true few presidents have thought of the citizens of other countries as “constituents,” they have thought of them as worth spending our nation’s money, lives, and affection on. The twentieth century is sprinkled with proof that that was how American presidents thought. For instance, how does Romano think American presidents viewed the Marshall Plan? Does he think the Berlin Airlift, undertaken to bring food to people who were not too long before the enemy, didn’t recognize America’s strength gave it a larger responsibility?
We are a country founded on ideas. One of the most important is the value of each and every “other” – a tradition often seen in religious terms in which the soul is emphasized. Such reverence may sometimes use a more Deist vocabulary, but it has long been a central tenet of American thought. Of course, it is the product of centuries in which we have moved from tribal cultures to ones in which that respect for the other can lead to the rule of law. This universalization was perhaps most strongly influenced by a religious vision which has permeated our history and many previous president’s thinking: seeing others as constituents is a weak substitute for this vitalizing belief.
So, I thought I’d see what the historian himself said. Goetzmann makes the great, old argument that “the main theme of colonial experience in North America had been a quest for liberty.” Liberty & freedom – interwoven as David Hackett Fischer so beautifully shows. That passage Romano quotes begins: “the leaders of the American revolutionary generation, then, despite their self-conscious awareness of the ideological experiment to which they were pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, made no pretense to originality. Their real genius lay in being forcefully dedicated but characteristic men of their time who put to work the best the enlightenment had to offer before their world disappeared forever.” (18) Goetzmann’s point, it seems to me, is a pattern we saw earlier in Winthrop and later in Lincoln; they saw their duty to represent a profound and terribly important – even transcendent – idea.
That idea impelled them to take to pen and rifle 233 years ago; after the revolution, they remained loyal to this calling. If they could embody that idea in a constitution and it could characterize the nation’s action and history, it would gain validity. They felt a grave responsibility to something more important than they and grander even than the nation they were defining. At the service of that idea, George Washington did what few in history have done. He saw the office as greater than he was. Today we can be thankful he and his generation were willing to take those risks for that idea and were willing to submerge their egos in that cause. Nor should we be alone in our gratitude. It should be shared by the many countries who internalized our founders’ example. They have found fault with parts of our constitution, none follow it exactly. But, then, our founders didn’t establish a Utopia, they wouldn’t have been foolish enough to think they could. Besides, different nations have different cultures, different ways of expressing that respect for one another and respect for others’ ability to reason their way to a vote. Those ideas made the twentieth century American – not because of our wealth or our power but because by the end of it, many nations had internalized that idea. Some countries created a democracy using their own culture; some merely gave it lip service. But most had come to see rights implicit in the nature of man. We can see that Honduras, with its own past and its own cultural temptations, tried to make that concept unshakable by those who would wrest power from the people and keep it in the executive. We remain, today as Thomas Paine argued we were then, representative of an idea. Our celebration is for our country, but also for the idea of our country. If we have a president who sometimes thinks the man is larger than the office, we have seen precedents in men like Washington, who thought differently. And it is they who defined our system, we can hope, beyond the petty and passing ambitions of any one group or person.
Goetzmann takes us back to that time:
By 1776, the war, which had already begun in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord had turned into something quite different from a legal struggle. It had become the philosopher’s war, an ideological conflict that was made to represent the culmination of the Enlightenment struggle for the rights of man in a better environment shorn of the last vestiges of decadent feudalism. What better place than America – “Nature’s Nation” – for the opening struggle in the great cause of liberty that Paine so optimistically declared “the birthday of a new world.” The American Revolution as it developed through seven long years of war had become an adventure of the mind and a scene of creation, as well as a grim struggle of body against body.
Those men protected and kept the best of the Enlightenment alive. Goetzmann argues America accepted and gave openly; these ideas came from “(1) the history of classical antiquity, (2) the English legal tradition, (3) Calvinistic thought of all shades, (4) a Catonic image derived from contemporary British political and social dissenters, (5) the fundamental ideas and methodology of the Scientific Revolution, (6) the writings of John Locke, and (7) a full spectrum of Enlightenment thought.” The importance of these influences draws us back to our debt to England, to history, to Christianity, to reason. Perhaps I’m simplifying or misreading Goetzmann – I haven’t gotten far into the book. But I am sure Romano is. And these currents are seldom given credit in speeches such as Obama’s, though they often were in Bush’s.
Historians value history; perhaps our “professor in chief” need not. Twice lately (here and here) Victor Davis Hanson has criticized the history within the very speech Romano praises. Hanson “suggested that almost all Obama’s historical references were wrong or distorted.” The speech, clearly modeled on Winthrop’s classic sermon, that Bush gave to the Palestinians early in his first term was not dissected in such a way; indeed, few seemed to understand it – which means, I suspect, that few knew their history as well as they should. Obama, on the other hand, is praised by Romano, who argues that Obama is “like no president before him,” for he “has notified the rest of the world that the United States will continue to export its philosophy, ethos, and political theory — but through conversation, not declamation, seeking free adoption, not grudging acquiescence.” Unfazed by such reservations as Hanson’s, Romano concludes with the fulsome: “Philosopher prez and cosmopolitan in chief. After all this time, you figure, we were entitled to one. It looks as if we’ve got him.”
Romano writes in a journal aimed principally at college administrators; he argues that Obama’s speech is more subtle and thoughtful than a noted historian’s approach. (Goetzmann had garnered a Pulitzer before I took his class – and that was over thirty years ago.) Hanson, another academic who has a reputation in his field although his prodigious output in the last few years demonstrates a wide-ranging and engaged mind, has not penetrated the cosmopolitan thinking of the White House, as Robert Gibbs’ response to a question indicates: “I’m not familiar with the work of the esteemed historian. I haven’t seen it. I can assure you that not knowing who this historian is, I’ll put my money on our speechwriters.”
Some day, perhaps, academics will blush to remember what they praised and what they criticized. Or, perhaps, some day, history will be sufficiently airbrushed so as not to detract from Obama’s speech. They did so much 233 years ago, surely we can do our part – keep track of our history, know it even when the schools don’t teach it and academics ignore it. In the end, I think I’ll bet on some of those academics. And I’ll bet on Goetzmann’s America: one whose “unity and national character arose, from a generous, indeed limitless, cosmopolitanism that embraced men and ideas from all nations.” I don’t know if he minds the dismissive category in which Romano puts him – “a current specimen of the highly appreciative Americanist.” However, being “highly appreciative” is the appropriate and proportional attitude. Many of us – and many before us – led happier, more productive, richer lives because these ideas were protected and nurtured by the founders. They gave us the open market place, with all it implied – rationality, the supremacy of truth – in all its manifestations – political, religious, economic. Goetzmann quotes Jefferson:
We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left fee to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong. . . I believe this on the contrary, the strongest government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of other? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
And that reminds us of the lovely sense of harmony and rationality that underlies Jefferson’s vision as he describes religion in Virginia:
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.
So, between Obama and Hanson, the past and present, optimism and cynicism, the endless dialogues of a democracy continue. And, I can be grateful – as I wasn’t always then – that Goetzmann chose the path he did. He mixed art and history and philosophy and literature, moving across the boundaries of disciplines. If that approach (endlessly proliferating “studies”) produced some of the worst in academia, he showed it could also lead to a richly rewarding synthesis.