The Corruption of America

The Rebirth of a Nation

The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

by Jackson Lears (Harper, 2009)

Jackson Lears's new history of the United States, from the end of Reconstruction to the wrap-up of World War I, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, smolders with banked rage at the age in which it was written. The author's idea of truly virtuous patriotism — as distinct from the jingoism that indelibly mark Teddy Roosevelt, for one, as an overgrown adolescent — appear toward the end of the fifth chapter, "Crisis and Regeneration." Writing of the fin-de-siècle tensions that were occasioned by the Philippine question (whether to liberate and withdraw the formerly Spanish possession, or to occupy it), Mr Lears follows a lengthy, and tacitly outraged, summary of imperialist views with a passage of level-headed serenity that has not been struck in all the preceding material.

Anti-imperialism at its best was characterized by a particularity of vision, a refusal of euphemism, a realism tempered by ethical concerns about the corrupting influence of imperial power on both the rulers and the ruled. These concerns came straight from the framers of the Constitution, who were haunted by the historical pattern of republics trading liberties for the false comforts of empire. Mahan caught the conflict in 1897, when he complained that "any project of extending the sphere of the United States, to annexation or otherwise, is met by the constitutional lion in the path." Acquisition of overseas empire was a departure from republican tradition.

Anti-imperialists drew strength from disparate sources. African-Americans were skeptical about the beneficence of white paternalism. "The white man's burden," wrote the black editor James Jefferson Roche, "is never so heavy that he cannot carry it out the door or window of the house he has just burglarized." The anti-imperialists also included prominent public figures, from Adams and Bryan and Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain and William James. Carnegie's presence in this group suggests that even robber barons were not driven entirely by their economic interests. He, like the others, was appalled by the betrayal of the principals that had supposedly led us into war with Spain in the first place.

Unlike Roosevelt, the anti-imperialists knew the difference between a republic and an empire.

It may be a delusion, but I cannot help reading into this a denunciation of the Bush régime lines.

Mr Lears does not say so, but Rebirth of a Nation appears to take its title from a "racist epic," D W Griffith's Birth of a Nation; unlike Griffith, Mr Lears obviously intends the title to be taken ironically. His book is a sustained attack on the addictive use of organic metaphors to prescribe the conduct of national affairs. The two words in the chapter heading that I've mentioned are both quasi-medical terms; "revitalization" is another organic-sounding thread. But the word "rebirth" contains in itself a powerful critique of much American thought in the aftermath of the War Between the States. It carries the orthodox Christian idea of resurrection one step too far, implying an actual physical rebirth here and now. It encapsulates the wishful thinking that characterized the American response to a catastrophically unresolved conflict.

Another toxic abstraction from Mr Lears's period is "Anglo-Saxon," a term that swelled with narcissistic self-esteem as the nation swelled with immigrants from places other than Northern Europe. Mr Lears shows, in several contexts, how assimilation into a social fabric that equated the American with the Anglo-Saxon depended upon the exclusion of obviously non-Anglo-Saxon African Americans and Chinese Americans. The Irish, despised in the Northeast, where neither blacks nor Asians were common, were able to advance their status considerably in San Francisco, by speaking out against the influx of Chinese labor. The rapid commercialization of popular entertainment toward the end of the century provided another avenue of assimilation, similarly widened. "The common American idiom that united disparate ethnic groups in a mass culture depended for its coherence on the exclusion of African Americans, or on their ritual humiliation if they appeared in public at all." Between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the liberation of African Americans, still today thought to have been one of the purposes as well as an achievement of the Civil War, had yielded to the institution of an American version of apartheid that was as potentially lethal, especially for black males, as state-sponsored terrorism anywhere.

Even more familiar to today's readers will be the lineaments of the class conflict that convulsed the United States during the Second Industrial Revolution. Mr Lears quotes Henry Ward Beecher at length, to show how "good-guy," abolitionist thinking metastasized into the heartless endorsement of another kind of inequality. Beecher, he writes,

was a representative figure, an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of John Brown before the Civil War. His postwar career revealed the Republicans' increasing use of free labor ideals as a defense of economic privilege. His sermons summarized the regnant mix of laissez-faire and natural law — the chaos of unregulated economic life contained (at least rhetorically) by the stasis of unchanging principle. "Are the working men of the world oppressed?" he asked. "Yes, undoubtedly, by governments, by rich men, and by the educated classes — not because of selfishness and injustice but because it must be so. Only in the household is it possible for strength and knowledge and power not to oppress weakness weakness and ignorance and helplessness." This was "a great natural law": "no being against being, or little being against much being, must always kick the beam. The volume of power that is in any class must have scope and operation." Lest anyone misunderstand that last statement, Beecher quickly added that "the American idea recognizes no classes... There is no rich class before the law, and there is no working class before the law; and in the intense sense in which the term 'class' is now coming to be used in the controversies of the day it is un-American, it is unphilosophic, it is undemocratic, it is false. We are all common citizens, having the same liberty as one another; and he who classifies men and seeks to antagonize them is an enemy of the country and of his kind." For Beecher and his comfortable audience, the "American idea" was clear: "God gave me my right to liberty when he gave  me myself: and the business of government is to see that nobody takes it away from me unjustly — that is all." This was the worldview that left unprotected labor at the mercy of unregulated capital.

Theodore Roosevelt's indulgence in this sort of talk, so strongly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan and, even more, of Margaret Thatcher, elicits an even sharper judgment:

Roosevelt was a master of this sort of mystification. He despised Bryan as a "small man" unwilling to take up the burdens of national greatness. "A man goes out to do a man's work, to confront the difficulties and overcome them, and to train up his children to do likewise," he announced. "So it is with the Nation." The portentous vacancy of this formula, its utter lack of evidence or argument, and its fundamental confusion of individual and national courage — all these qualities were characteristic of Roosevelt's imperial rhetoric, and non proved a barrier to his popularity. Indeed, the melding or moral into physical courage and the merging of nations with individuals proved enduring features of militarist posturing. This was the sort of thinking (or not thinking) that led Senator Chauncey Depew to dismiss the anti-imperialist critique of the Philippines War as a "scuttle and run strategy. Similar category mistakes plague public discourse today.

Rebirth of a Nation is composed as a series of personality sketches interspersed with reporting about events such as the Haymarket Riots and the Pullman strike. As such, it is supremely readable, old-fashioned history, sprinkled here and there with relatively novel terms (such as "producerism" and "organicist"), but sparing with dates and official events. Where it differs from comfortable histories is the intensity of the critical review to which it subjects the slogans and bromides that leaders made a habit of spouting, indeed, to such an extent that it is impossible to think of the period without tripping over the concept of "hypocrisy" again and again. The book is best approached as a multi-part essay on the fifty-year transformation of our Republic's ideals, with particular attention paid to its self-regard and to its detachment from an ever-liberalizing Protestantism. And only the most optimistic readers — along with those who are loyal to their country whether it be right or wrong — will come away from Mr Lears's pervasive discussion of race without suspecting that, aside from the development of made-to-measure apparel, the War of 1861-1865 achieved just about nothing of a positive nature.

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