There’s an excellent article in the December edition of First Things about the “two foundings” of America — the political foundings of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the religious foundings of the Great Awakening and the growth of voluntarist Protestantism during the mid-19th century.
The thesis of the article, in short form, is that there are historical and philosophical problems for relying solely on the Founding Fathers for guidance about what constitutes an authoritative interpretation of how America ought to grow in the present day. The ideas of limited government and personal responsibility that so marked the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, in not insignificant ways, superseded by the legal and moral repercussions of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, and its transformation into the Progressive Era and New Deal. In particular, the high degree of unquestioned federal authority demonstrated during the mobilization for World War I cannot be lightly dismissed.
These points are certainly well-taken. People who yearn for the halcyon days of yeoman farmers and citizen legislators ignore a large chunk of history at their intellectual and moral peril; I’m reminded of liberal Catholics who seem to forget that there really was a Catholic Church between Trent and Vatican II.
Yet we live in a world that increasingly deprives its inhabitants of true freedom to have a personal “second founding.” Perhaps we ignore our collective history not because we have forgotten it, but because we’ve become conditioned to thinking of an individual thing (or a person) as being a comprehensible and persistent entity from creation to extinction. The fallacy of composition at work?
In days long gone, it was possible to for a person to start over from scratch. Now, even travel to a foreign country doesn’t allow for a break with the past, unless one resorts to illegal activities to secure a new identity. We are tied to our credit reports, bank balances, criminal records, academic histories, resumes, families … and there are no socially acceptable do-overs. The more I learn about the paperwork of sailing around the world, the more I understand about the immutability of personal identity over time in a bureaucratic society. Without passports and competency papers and registration forms and credit cards, we are nothing.
Perhaps this explains in part our unwillingness to consider the possibility that America has fundamentally changed; we see how the nation began, and decide that this is who we are. As I listen, in particular, to conservative commentators, I cannot help but to scratch my head and wonder how they can be so willfully ignorant of the new political reality purchased in blood at Antietam and Gettysburg.
America isn’t what she used to be, but we still persist in holding her to the standard of her birth. Her citizens, too, often aren’t why they used to be — but they, too, are held to the circumstances of their youth.
Cultural memory is a funny thing, I guess.