Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Callow America?

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
William Halsall (1882)
The Mayflower took Pilgrims to the New World (1620)
(Image from Wikipedia)

I recently finished Paul 'Wildman' Johnson's thousand-page History of the American People (online 640 pages), which is the first complete book of American history that I've read all the way through, and I found it fascinating.

Johnson, of course, is an Americaphile, so he's flattering for an American to read, but he grounds his views in evidence and reasons -- not that one can't disagree with his interpretation (historical 'proof' is always ambiguous).

Anyway, I bring up his history now because Contemporary Nomad has a discussion going about Anti-Americanism, a thread to which I've marginally contributed, and it has gotten me to remembering my own experiences in Europe and various encounters with ... well, with what I can only imprecisely identify as a certain haughty disdain for America, an attitude that treats America as a childish nation.

One European friend, opening the International Herald Tribune to some article about America, remarked -- only half-jokingly -- "Let's see what the children are doing."

I retorted, "Well, if we're children, we're Europe's offspring, so you bear some responsibility as dysfunctional parents!"

But there's a strong sense in which America is not younger than Europe, for it developed Britain's democratic traditions into their modern form before any European nation developed modern democracy, and it has had a unbroken, independent, democratic political system since the late 18th century, far longer any of Europe's. I'm reproducing below a rather lengthy quote from Johnson's history, a passage in which -- having noted the role of governers in the earl colonies -- he explains the more complex, democratic political system that was actually developing in colonial America:

The governors, of course, did not rule alone. Each had some kind of council, which formed the executive or administrative body of the colony and constituted the upper chamber (like the House of Lords) of its assembly. They were appointed by the crown (in royal colonies) or by the proprietors, and their numbers varied -- ten in Rhode Island, twenty-eight in Massachusetts. They also had judicial functions and (with the governor) served as courts of appeal, though certain important cases could be appealed again to the Privy Council in London. A good, firm-minded governor could usually get his council solidly behind him.

It was a different matter with the Houses of Burgesses (or whatever they were called), the lower chambers of the assemblies. The first one dated from as far back as 1619. All the colonies had them. Most of them were older than any working parliaments in Europe, apart from Britain's. They aped the House of Commons and studied its history assiduously, especially in its more aggressive phases. Most of these assemblies kept copies of one or more volumes, for instance, of John Rushworth's Historical Collections, which documents the struggles of the Commons against James I and Charles I and was regarded by royalists as a subversive book. Whenever the Commons set a precedent in power-grabbing or audacity, one or other assembly was sure to cite it.

However, there was an important difference between the English parliament and the colonial assemblies. England had never had a written constitution. All its written constitutional documents, like Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights, were specific ad hoc remedies for crises as they arose. They were never intended, nor were they used, as guides for the present and future. All the English had were precedents: their constitutional law operated exactly like their common law, organically. The Americans inherited this common law. But they also had constitutions. The. Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) was the first written constitution not only in America in America but in the world. Written constitutions were subsequently adopted by all the colonies. It is vital to grasp this point. It was the constitutions as much as the assemblies themselves which made the colonies unique. In this respect they could be seen as more 'modern' than England, certainly more innovatory. Its constitution was what made Connecticut, for instance, separate from and independent of Massachusetts, its original 'Mother.' Having a constitution made a colony feel self-contained, mature, almost sovereign. Having a constitution inevitably led you to think in terms of rights, natural law, and absolutes, things the English were conditioned, by their empiricism and their organic approach to change, not to trouble their heads about. That was 'abstract stuff.' But it was not abstract for Americans. And any body which has a constitution inevitably begins to consider amending and enlarging it -- a written constitution is a signpost pointing to independence. (Johnson, History of the American People, pages 104-105)
If we consider American history in its concrete details, as Johnson does in the passage above, we see that Americans were, from very early on, developing the fine-grained habits of political democracy even in their time as colonial peoples and surpassing English democratic traditions in doing so -- and certainly surpassing the rest of Europe.

It's therefore somewhat surprising that many Europeans, in their Anti-Americanism, look down Americans as immature children. We are 'older' than they are.


At 9:33 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

We are immature children? Um, Europeans were the ones who were constantly killing each other during the 20th century.

The CIV household used Paul Johnson's history books when the young'un was studying American History. It was easier to rely on his book than to sort through the liberal trash in the text book.

At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if violence in Europe is not more a function of geography (i.e., a bunch of nations with ancient grudges shoved into a relatively small space) than of maturity...

Don't really want to get into a political argument, but I think that is food for thought.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, good idea on the textbook.

Charles, I agree that Europe is not immature; I only dispute the European view that America is immature.

In my view, Europeans simply don't understand America or Americans, but they think that they do understand.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

When Europeans fail to understand us, it's often because they don't grasp the physical scale and scope of the continental United States. I've known educated Europeans who believed that they could easily drive between New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Orlando, and Las Vegas--all during a two-week holiday.

The vastness and regional diversity of the U.S. explain quite a bit about us. It's true that we don't know much about, say, the politics of some smaller European nations, but that's because we have so many civic, political, and cultural matters keeping us busy at the national, regional, state, county, and township levels. Our size also explains why we're so gung-ho about cars in ways that Europeans will never be.

I love talking to Europeans who are visiting America for the first time. It's never as simple here as they think it's going to be, and sometimes I'm genuinely surprised by how charmed they are.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Many moons ago, I had an Italian girlfriend, Ivana the Terrible (as she called herself), and as we were one time driving north of San Francisco along Highway 1, enjoying the scenery, she fell silent and remained so for a long time, just watching the countryside pass by, until finally, after that long silence, she observed, "It's just like in the movies."

I laughed, for she thought all of those road trip movies had been faked somehow.

But the countryside was real...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Hodges: Yes, I do agree that most Europeans have a limited understanding of America. My comment was mainly in response to CIV's comment (which kind of struck me as an "I know you are but what am I?" defense).

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Charles, you can call me "Jeffery."

I probably didn't express myself clearly enough. I wanted to say that I agreed with you about the maturity issue but also to clarify my views a bit ... but I may have clouded things.

Anyway, it's perhaps clear now.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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