What Distinguishes America?

This essay is adapted from the recently published book “A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty,” by the late Peter Augustine Lawler & Richard M. Reinsch II ©University Press of Kansas, 2019.

What distinguishes America? From one view, of course, ours is a middle-class country full of prosaic, bourgeois men and women who all understand themselves to be free beings who work. Orestes Brownson’s view, however, is that America is the dialectical reconciliation—someone else might say prudent compromise—between two idealistic extremes. One extreme is the egalitarian idealism of Puritan New England. The other is the love of liberty of the Southern aristocrats. As Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us, each extreme had its founding as European civilization planted itself on our soil in both New England and Virginia. Our two founding regions, Brownson explains, are characterized by “opposite” political tendencies.

The antebellum South, for Brownson, was characterized by personal democracy, that is, government built on the principle of pure individualism. The North—through the dominant influence of New England—was characterized by humanitarian democracy, that is, government built on the principle of egalitarianism. Each of these extremes, by itself, is equally “hostile to civilization” and “capable of sustaining governments only on the principles common to all despotisms.” What the South “loses” is “the race,” or the truth that all human beings are created both free and equal. It tribally suppresses the truth that rights are universal or “catholic” or encompass us all. In that respect, it dismissed the truth, embodied in Puritan New England (even in its post-Christian manifestations), about the “unity” of the whole human race. What New England loses—as it makes the transcendentalist move from Christianity properly speaking to a kind of pantheism—is “the individual” or the irreducible liberty of each particular person. When Brownson calls the humanitarianism of New England “abolitionism,” he means that its theoretical tendency is to obliterate all the distinctions that constitute the truth about who each of us is, made in the image of a personal and relational—or Trinitarian—God.

Abolitionism serves justice insofar as it aims to negate the barbaric oppression of race-based slavery and the patriarchal chauvinism that excludes women from equal citizenship. But it moves on to deny what we can see with our eyes about the natural differences between men and women, as well as the distinction between citizen and noncitizen, which is an indispensable feature of political life, which, in turn, is necessarily territorial or shared by people occupying a particular part of the world. Brownson goes as far as to say the abolitionist movement cannot end until “all individualities” disappear. Men are to become apolitical and indistinguishable members of a species, and our species will then be no different than all the others. Abolitionism so understood, of course, reminds us of C. S. Lewis’s “abolition of man,” as it does Nietzsche’s “last man” and “the end of history.” It also reminds us of the Southern saying that Northerners love humanity, but Southerners love particular men and women they really know. For Brownson, abolitionism so understood replaces charity with philanthropy, as “philanthropy, unlike charity, does not begin at home and is powerless unless it operates at a distance.” Charity is the virtue that flows from our love of those persons made in the image of the loving, personal God, but the philanthropist isn’t concerned about this or that person in particular.

Brownson echoes St. Augustine when he reminds us that true religion is “catholic,” but it was never meant to abolish the diversity of a world separated into nations with their own “providential constitutions” or destinies rooted in their traditions, customs, and complex array of circumstances. The despotic civil religions of the Greeks and Romans denied the truth that each of us is more than a loyal citizen, but the modern efforts to reduce the political community to merely a contract that autonomous individuals without a history and an inheritance consent to denies that we are citizens, and that political belonging is a real and admirable feature of who we are. The mean between the extreme positions of the unreserved or supreme devotion demanded by the ancient polis and the selfish liberation—or what Brownson calls political atheism—of modern or Lockean liberalism is civic loyalty under a personal God (in whose image all creatures are made and who is no mere creature of any particular city). What G. K Chesterton called “the American romance of the citizen” is that each of us is equally more than a citizen, but an equal citizen too. It’s on the truthfully Christian foundation of the Roman Augustine that the United States escapes the aristocratic error of living in denial of “the unity of the human race” and the democratic, or humanitarian, error of obliterating the territorial distinctions that separates persons into particular political communities. Nations have separate political destinies, but it’s also true that “all Christian nations belong to one and the same family, have the same Christian idea, and are (each in its way) developing and laboring to perfect one and the same order of civilization.” No nation or state should be explicitly Christian politically, but they can be united by a shared Christian culture or civilization, which ranks higher than their diversity of political forms.

Brownson on Founding Statesmanship

Brownson’s capacity to incorporate what’s best about both the South and New England into American constitutionalism properly understood depends on understanding the Framers not as theorists, but as statesmen. They were, on the level of theorists, innovating Lockeans who aimed at the revolutionary reconstruction not only of government but of all life with the individualistic spirit of contract and consent. But they didn’t build as theorists, but as statesmen, whose enduring accomplishment was to take into account all they were given in framing our political institutions. That means our written Constitution wasn’t meant to obliterate the inheritances Americans received from their first foundings in New England and in Virginia, although it was meant to avoid the extremism of each of them taken alone. They certainly didn’t mean to somehow create a civilization out of nothing, displaying the opposite of gratitude to everything our people and our nation have received. As statesmen, they did not understand themselves simply to be implementing the theory of the Declaration of Independence, which is all about sovereign individuals instituting government to serve their personal, apolitical, asocial, and areligious needs. The theory of the Declaration, taken as a self-sufficient foundation of government, is, Brownson observes, “political atheism,” insofar as it recognizes no authority above the individual’s sovereign rule. It’s also “state suicide,” insofar as a sustainable political order depends on more than consent that can be withdrawn at will. The theory of the Declaration, as Jefferson saw, lays the foundation for permanent revolution, with no place for the territorial character of political attachment, the social consensus for political loyalty over generations, or any effectual restraint on the “secessionism” that is the tendency of uprooted, assertive individuals.

That doesn’t mean that Brownson is particularly uncritical of the content of our written constitution, even as he places it in a providential context. He goes as far as to ground federalism, which, for our Framers, was more a compromise than anything else, in the truth about human nature. Moreover, he affirms social but not political aristocracy. Democracy of some sort is what Americans have been given as a possibility, and there is no way we could or should choose against it. But democracy is not without its defects, and that’s why Brownson, in American fashion, calls our country more a republic than a pure or Rousseauian democracy. And democracy is not necessarily a universal political possibility that’s destined to be actualized everywhere. But Brownson is, overall, a loyal American democratic republican. Democracy is more sustainable and more elevated by social aristocracy—or some place for a beneficial deference to the natural aristocracy of talented and virtuous leaders—and the antebellum south, which was democratic in political form, displayed this to a certain degree.

In the same way, Brownson highlights the singular American separation of church and state as not only prudent or customary or inherited but deeply truthful. He says that his Catholic Church in America has all the freedom it needs—the freedom to evangelize—and he suggests that it’s always wrong for the church to push for “more” politically. That separation, in fact, is grounded in the Christian truth about the transpolitical character of the church and of each of us as persons open to the whole truth about who we are. True religion is nonsectarian, and so it rises above (and is not about) serving the diverse needs of territorial political forms. Because true religion is catholic—and because American political power is limited by that fact—Brownson could say without irony that America, in form, is a Catholic country.

That, however, means that religious liberty can’t be sustained by mere religious tolerance, much less religious indifference. Religious freedom is not, in truth, the negative freedom of the individual’s isolated sovereign conscience to choose spiritual preferences. It is positive freedom, or freedom for being a member of a church (or an organized body of thought and action). Religious freedom can’t be sustained by “political atheism,” because it has no effectual limit on individual or political will. That means the Constitution’s silence on God is a rejection of sectarian civil theology—or the chaining of religion and citizens wholly to the sovereign nation. Thus it’s an affirmation of the understanding of God found only among the Christians. In that crucial respect if in no other, ours is a Christian nation. Even if many of our Founders regarded themselves as atheistic enlightened rationalists in the theoretical mode of John Locke, it turns out that they and even Locke himself were more Christian than they knew. It’s from the Christians that we learned the truth about our dignity as more than merely natural or political beings chained in some civic “cave.” Locke and our founding theorists slighted, of course, the fact that our freedom depends on being relational beings as well, but that accusation works better against the theory than the statesmanlike practice of our founders, who created, or better, preserved safe spaces for the relational flourishing of local political communities, families, and churches.

Brownson’s understanding of the place of Christianity and even aristocracy in our providential Constitution seems, at first, too quirky to be of much use. And it’s true enough that it has had no influence worth speaking of in our political tradition so far. But it might still be more relevant than ever. One argument against the idiosyncratic character of Brownson’s providential constitution, after all, is that it is strikingly similar in many ways to the description of America found in the best book ever written about America and the best book ever written about democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville’s America

Brownson, like Tocqueville, understands America to have two foundings—one in New England and the other in Virginia—with opposite tendencies. Moreover, he goes even further in understanding the American Constitution not as simply the implementation of the theory of the Declaration of Independence. Rights, for Tocqueville, are a point of honor—a proud assertion detached from merely material need. Tocqueville, in fact, notoriously doesn’t mention the Declaration at all, showing that the Constitution and the minds and hearts of democratic Americans can be accounted for without its theory about individuals in the state of nature. He does observe that America was transformed by its revolutionary generation, but his emphasis is mostly that that democratic transformation of our country was deliberately incomplete. Unlike the far more comprehensive and radically centralizing French effort, the American revolution left intact “free local institutions,” an inheritance from aristocratic England, that Americans do not regard as aristocratic, freedom of religion combined with a more or less universal acceptance of Christian moral precepts, and the family.

Christianity, Tocqueville instructs legislators, should be regarded as America’s most precious inheritance from aristocratic ages. Christianity is as democratic as any religion can be that preserves the inegalitarian distinction between God and man, teaches that we have souls and irreducible social duties to be discovered and performed in common, and preaches that each creature made in God’s image has a high and singular destiny as more than a merely biological being. And the Catholic Tocqueville, like the Catholic Brownson, thought that American freedom was quite compatible with a secure future for the church, for a church that would likely grow as an authoritative countercultural antidote to the aimless and apathetic permissiveness of individualism. But Tocqueville, also like Brownson, thought that pantheism—a kind of indiscriminate humanitarianism that ends up even abolishing the distinctions that separate God, man, and material nature—was the democratic threat to individuality that most needs to be opposed by the true friends of human liberty. Tocqueville, it’s true, displays no awareness that the Puritanism of the New England founding had morphed into transcendentalist pantheism, and so he doesn’t join Brownson in describing pantheism as a particularly American form of post-Christian heresy. He and Brownson do agree that the movement forward to pantheism is a far greater danger to the future of human liberty than some relapse to aristocracy, although he also warned of the possibility of an industrial aristocracy that would have many of the privileges of the European political aristocracies without any corresponding sense of paternalistic responsibility. The industrial aristocracy that would think of itself as a meritocracy based on productivity and as deserving what it has, and think of others as beings to be controlled or scripted by their mental labor.

One antidote he presents is an aristocratic education—reading the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. Another is the American belief in the equality of all personal creatures with souls, and that includes some attention to the limited truth in the Puritan spirit of egalitarian political reform. The Americans, because they are Christians, don’t believe that political reform can remedy every human ill or produce perfect equality. But because they are Christians, they are truthful critics of the aristocratic assumption that slavery will in some sense always be with us, including the alienated drudgery of this or that point in the progress of the division of labor. One part of the enduring American legacy of the Christian Puritans is the belief that universal education isn’t just the techno-vocationalism of free beings who work, but the genuinely higher education that allows every creature to read the Bible and other great and good books for himself or herself. Both work and leisure are possibilities given to us all. That’s why Tocqueville defends the Puritans’ Sunday—a day of preaching and personal reflection about each of our high and singular immortal destines as beings with souls—against the encroaching spirits of materialism and commerce. In that respect, religion is our most precious aristocratic inheritance, a source of both chastened humility and proper pride, something Socrates himself would praise as indispensable for personal elevation against the democratic grain. Organized religion, in that respect, is both highly egalitarian and a form of social aristocracy. So Tocqueville shows us that America at its best is some combination of middle-class, aristocratic, and Christian (meaning, first of all, Puritan) self-understandings.

In describing the “social state of the Anglo-Americans,” he observes that all Americans understand themselves alike, as free beings who work. The good news, we can say, is that they are free, like aristocrats. The bad news, we can add, is that they have to work, like slaves. There is, in America, no leisure class that understands itself to deserve to depend on the work of others to pursue higher or nobler and intrinsically beautiful pursuits. American justice is that each of us was made to work, and so each of us has every right and even duty to love money. One reason we love money is that we have every reason to expect that our efforts will be rewarded with more of it. The equality of opportunity to be rewarded for our real productivity is justice. And, in justice, there is no genuine meritocracy but the one based on productivity. There’s no denying that the rich deserve what they have—money—and other claims for status are lazy and unjust vanity. In America, the rich have to work hard to make it clear that they’re only quantitatively and not qualitatively better than most people. So they have to hide any unjust contempt they’ve picked up for the vulgarity of the many, and even when their ostentation becomes conspicuous it remains vulgar, because they either pretend or, more typically, really have no way of knowing better.

That means, Tocqueville adds, that the imperative to be middle class “to a certain point extends to intelligence itself.” There is, in fact, no place where there are “so few ignorant and fewer learned men than are found in America.” Middle-class intelligence is somewhere in between being ignorant and being learned. A certain level of learning is shared by most everyone, whereas in the aristocracy ignorance is pervasive and higher learning is prized as one purpose of the leisure the few deserve to enjoy. As Tocqueville observes, “In America a certain middling level of human knowledge is established. All minds have approached it; some by rising, others by falling.” America, we can say, has a common educational core, which, from an intellectual view, makes some people better and other people worse.

Now this combination of elevating and leveling characteristic of the middle-class social state works only to “a certain point” in achieving intellectual equality. That’s because, Tocqueville explains, “Intellectual inequality comes directly from God, and man cannot prevent it from always reappearing.” In a middle-class democracy the main way that inequality is displayed is through amounts of money, and there’s no denying that one’s intellect and one’s money are one’s own to use pretty much as one pleases.

Still, it’s undeniable that middle-class democracy is a form of indirect social engineering to recast everyone in the same mold. Or you could say that modern or middle-class liberal democracy is not only a form of government but a way of life. It’s that comprehensive intention that’s only partly consciously chosen that Tocqueville attempts to capture with the somewhat ambiguous phrase “social state.” In Brownsonian terms, the social state is partly the result of a written and partly the result of a more providential constitution.

The result in America is that “primary education is available to every one; higher education is hardly available to anyone.” There is an equality of opportunity and lack of opportunity. In America, just about everyone is “comfortable” enough to find the time to “readily procure for themselves the first elements of human knowledge.” And working for oneself does depend on basic literacy when it comes to reading, writing, and computation. Most Americans have no real alternative but to choose a profession, and so most education beyond “the general cultivation of intelligence” is basically an apprenticeship. That means, from an aristocratic view, real American education “concludes when ours begins.” It also means that more advanced American education is specialized with money in mind. Science itself becomes a kind of “trade” with only its immediate utility in some “applied” setting in mind.

In this connection, Tocqueville calls attention to and criticizes an American dream. Get rich while you’re young, and then turn to serious study or higher education somewhere down the road. The problem is, of course, that it’s young people who have “the taste for study.” The mind and the longing for learning function better and are more readily and deeply aroused early in life—as the example of Pascal shows. He was so deeply animated by his pursuit of truth—including the quest for God—hidden from view that he, in Tocqueville’s telling, pretty much thought himself to death before he was forty. It is also between very hard and impossible to switch off the love of money and switch on the love of truth for its own sake. Minds formed in a middle-class social state are formed by monetary and professional concerns—by being a free individual who works and nothing more. It’s between hard and impossible to choose, at a certain point, to be more or different than you’ve been for most of your life. That’s why the key democratic distinction is not between work and leisure, but work and recreation, and why, as Tocqueville observes, even literature becomes an industry. Certainly it’s not middle class to buy into the aristocratic claim that leisure is the basis of culture. Culture becomes an amenity you’re free to choose (or not) in your free time.

One piece of good news is that middle-class America is an “ever-growing crowd of readers,” but that means almost all authors become “vendors of ideas” for people who only know how to read for information and entertainment. Readers and writers profit from books that can be quickly read and don’t require much learning to be understood. Nuances elude them, because they have neither the taste nor time for them. Democratic readers, to be sure, have moments in which they “taste the pleasures of the mind furtively.” They do not—they believe they cannot—“make those pleasures the principal charm of their existence,” but they consider them “as a passing and necessary relaxation in the midst of the serious business of life.” The aristocrat holds that work is for leisure, the middle-class democrat says some relaxation is indispensable for sustaining the “serious business” demanded of those free and equal workers.

Tocqueville, of course, thinks that the middle-class view—like the aristocratic view—of who we are is partly true and partly not. The official doctrine of the aristocrats was “sublime” because it was detached from mere utility, and so it functioned to sustain the higher, proud, immaterial qualities that distinguish members of our species from all the others: those that cause us to have thoughts and perform deeds that stand the test of time, that keep us from being merely pointless momentary specks in a universe indifferent to the greatness of particular persons. The tendency of democracy, by contrast, is to empty individuals of particular relational content that keeps them from being absorbed into some impersonal system. Tocqueville’s key criticism of the middle-class understanding of freedom is that it’s unsustainable, mainly because it distorts and denies—without being able to extinguish—the needs of the soul. One result is the decent materialism of democracy is deformed (thank God!) by outbursts of spiritual madness, the diversion of incessant restlessness that has no material cause, a kind of insane ardor that drives the frenzied pursuit of happiness through material acquisition. Despite or because the middle-class democrat brags that he can reduce everything to self-interested calculation, madness, Tocqueville reports, is common in America.

Tocqueville adds, however, that while aristocrats constantly spoke of the beauty of virtue, in secret they studied the ways in which their doctrine was useful in sustaining their power. Middle-class democrats are less hypocritical by being loud and proud about the utility of science, virtue, and everything else useful for being rich and productive. Their view of freedom, in obvious ways, is more real and less imaginary than the aristocratic one. It is also more just, insofar as it doesn’t subordinate the many—who are publicly regarded as beings with interests to be recognized—to the interests of the few. The middle-class democrat candidly admits that no one should be regarded as more or less than a being with interests, and that’s why the love of money is (and should be) universal. That universal conclusion, Tocqueville ventures, is in accord with the mind of God, who has given each creature an equal right to liberty. Jesus coming down to earth, Tocqueville explains, revealed a truth about us all that we can confirm with reason as justice. In that respect, part of our providential Constitution is the New Testament, insofar as it’s what we’ve been given that can’t be forgotten, but only distorted or deformed. Tocqueville himself understands that when he attempts to enter into “the mind of God,” he finds that he must prefer the justice of equality to the greatness of the few.

But like Brownson, Tocqueville understands that the choice for equality—in the absence of any concern for the greatness of particular examples of individuality—morphs in the direction of an abstract humanitarianism and finally pantheism. And it’s pantheism, Tocqueville asserts, that most of all needs to be resisted by the true friends of human individuality. The tendency of aristocrats is to think too particularly, and so not even notice what they share in common with human beings not of their class. But the tendency of democrats is to think too generally, with generalizations that become plausible only through abstracting from the distinctions that constitute the truth about human nature. God, Tocqueville says, has no need of general ideas—a need that flows from the weakness of the human mind and not really from the nature of things. God sees each of us just as he or she is, similar to in some ways and different from in others. The egalitarian impulse toward “unity” that produces humanitarianism and then pantheism is really, in large part, anxious and ultimately failed attempts at self-forgetfulness. However, purely democratic poetry—poetry free from all imagined illusions—gets beyond both aristocratic focus on gods and heroes and the democratic focus on abstract humanity and impersonal nature. It’s all about the strange and wonderful being who exists for a moment between two abysses. At the end of the day, the truth is that each of us is put in a predicament not of his or her own making and has a singular destiny.

That means that the democratic tendency to reduce science to technology is, from one perspective, a candid and considerate effort to use what we can know to make lives better. But from another, it’s a diversion from what we can know about the invincible limits of such efforts, as well as about their degrading materialistic obsessiveness. In democracy, metaphysics and theology lose ground, as all of language is transformed in a technological direction. When aristocrats think about human perfectibility, they focus on the progress toward wisdom and virtue that occurs over particular lives, and they assume technological development and political change don’t really transform who each of us is. The aristocrat’s view of perfectibility is definite and particular, but it unrealistically underplays what science can do to improve the human condition. Democrats, by contrast, have a very indefinite view of perfectibility; the individual gains significance as part of a long process heading away from nature toward who knows what. Technological progress is therefore given broader significance as evidence of moral and political progress, as if technology couldn’t be deployed by those tyrants and didn’t inevitably have a cost in the relational lives of individuals.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says that the fundamental fact of the modern world is that it’s “a world split apart” into unrealistic extremes: There’s the displaced person who proudly understands himself or herself as an abstracted role player living by the code of “human rights” detached from the security and loyalty of any particular community. Our cognitive elite is made up of humanitarians who say “we are the world,” while not sharing the real egalitarian devotion of our original people. There’s also the person detached from the stability of family and church and secure employment and sometimes full of xenophobic resentment (and other stuff in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”) but in other ways  mainly decent and often touchingly nostalgic way for the relational dignity that comes from being a responsible citizen, parent, and friend.