Skip to main content

America on the Couch

ISSUE:  Spring 1983
Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial AngloSaxonism. By Reginald Horsman. Harvard. $22.50.

What happens when you put America on the couch? Reginald Horsman has done some intense probing, and with this book he joins the ranks of those perceptive investigators who have increasingly more to tell us about the dark side of the American psyche.

Without lingering over the Puritan parentage that helped shape the actions of later generations, for better and for worse, Horsman concentrates on American politics and social thinking between roughly 1800 and 1850, with particular emphasis on the evil that lives only in the hearts of the ostensibly good. Horsman’s Americans are complex people, not bad ones. Their main fault lies not in what they do but in the fact that they lie about what they are doing when it is wrong, making it that much harder for them to stop. Realpolitik assumes the occasional petit mal seizure on the part of any nation, but when one aberration after another is excused, isolated instances coalesce and become policy. In its schizophrenia, the freedom-loving American mind saw nothing wrong with enslaving the black, banishing the Indian, and declaring war on Mexico, all on the strength of a romantic and muddled Anglo-Saxon racial superiority entirely mythical in nature yet so intoxicating that even Teddy Roosevelt, with his impeccable Dutch lineage, claimed it as his own.

In both its strong and its weak forms, this tension is the power source of the American mind. The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the essays of Emerson and Thoreau—the masterworks of American literature take for their theme nothing less than the meeting, now in fusion, now in conflict, of the ideal and the real in American social and political life. (A century after the appearance of these works, the dictator-protagonist of John Updike’s The Coup meets an American official whom he describes as a son of “the simultaneously most expansionist and most avowedly idealistic of power aggregations.”) Horsman treats this same tension, though historically rather than metaphorically; in a direct and factual manner he details both the form of the myth of superiority and its falsity.

Cotton Mather saw the original American colonists as Jews and John Winthrop as their Moses, a tradition carried over into the revolutionary generation and given an unusual twist by the Founding Fathers. Horsman has John Adams telling his wife in August 1776 about the work of the committee which was designing the Great Seal: “Mr. Jefferson,” wrote Adams, “proposed the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night; and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” Some decades later an anonymous American reviewer of Macaulay’s History of England (1849) noted that “we too are English, and all the far-descended honors of the English name are ours by inheritance . . .our race reads lessons to the world in philosophy, in science, in mechanical skill, in the arts of government, in Christian morality . . .we are far behind in the light and frivolous arts” because ours is “the imperial Anglo-Saxon race, whose mission on earth is like that of the Jews in Canaan, “to subdue the land and possess it.”” What is suggested by these isolated quotes (and Horsman has others like them), with their cocksure and even jingoistic insistence that Americans are not Americans at all but the only true Englishmen, not to mention a latter-day version of the Chosen People, is the persistence of something called the Anglo-Israelite Theory.

According to this theory, ten tribes, numbering about 27,000 people, were exiled in 721 B.C. by King Sargon of Assyria following his conquest of Samaria, at that time the capital of Israel. The fate of the tribes is unknown, although most scholars assume that in the natural course of events the Israelites were assimilated by other groups and surrendered their tribal identification. More fanciful thinkers have offered other scenarios, including the migration of the tribes to America, where they became the Indians, and the establishment of a Utopian nation in an African river valley. One such scenario has the Lost Tribes evolving into the entire AngloSaxon-Celtic and kindred peoples. That the earliest probable proponent of this Anglo-Israelite Theory, an English naval officer named Richard Brothers (1757—1824), was confined for some ten years as a criminal lunatic, does not mean that it was an isolated screwball idea. It is estimated that at one time as many as two million people believed that the English-speaking peoples were of Hebrew ancestry, and it is largely on the strength of this theory that many Jews were admitted to England in the 19th century, thus escaping oppression on the Continent. In its most diffuse form, the Anglo-Israelite Theory is reflected in colonial and revolutionary America in the form of a marked fondness for all things Hebrew, as evidenced by Biblical place names for such towns as Salem and Bethlehem and the naming of children after Biblical figures. Hebrew was considered the mother of all languages, and, like Latin and Greek, part of the foundation of a liberal education, although, unlike those languages, it had the advantage of being a living tongue. Hebrew was offered in many secondary schools and was required of freshmen at Yale; until 1817, the annual commencement address at Harvard was given in Hebrew. And several members of the First Congress reportedly urged that Hebrew be made the official language of the new nation.

Here is where the trouble begins. Every schoolyard has in it a boy who, once a coward, has been taught to fight back by his father and is now the bully supreme. A persecuted selfimage leads to the development of a persecuting self, a statement that is as true on the macropsychological level as it is on the individual. And as if it were not enough for Americans to see themselves as downtrodden Israelites in bad need of a homeland, the revolutionary generation had a surprising tendency to identify with its English oppressors. Horsman notes that “the revolutionaries drew their precedents and principles from a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources, but whatever their various inspirations there was a strong, general belief that they were acting as Englishmen—Englishmen contending for principles of popular government, freedom, and liberty introduced into England more than a thousand years before by the highminded, freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons from the woods of Germany.” “We too are English,” wrote the reviewer who believed that Americans had a divine mission, like the Israelites, to subdue the land and possess it.

In the generation that fought the war with Mexico, reactions to this Anglo-Israelite rationale for imperialism were mixed. For example, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, the scholar and statesman who had been Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury, disputed publicly the assumption of racial superiority. Horsman writes:

Gallatin thought it remarkable that a democracy that rejected every hereditary claim of individuals should admit an hereditary superiority of races. Gallatin was puzzled by Anglo-Saxonism. How could a doubtful descent from men who lived a thousand years ago transmit a superiority over one’s fellowmen? Even at that time, he said, the Anglo-Saxons were inferior to the Goths [from whom the Spaniards, and thus the Mexicans, were descended] and in no way superior to the Franks and the Burgundians. The English, he admitted, had superior institutions, but this came not from their Anglo-Saxon descent but from a variety of causes, including a racial mixture of Frenchified Normans, Angevins, and Gascons. The progressive improvement of mankind had stemmed much more from religious and political institutions than from races.

But this imperialistic war (to Gallatin) was a justifiable invasion to many, even an act of liberation: a poem of the day has the Mexicans shouting joyously, “The Saxons are coming, our freedom is nigh.”

The flaws in the American character have been manifest since its earliest days, and these flaws are never so apparent as when they are set in relief by American virtues. In Jefferson’s lifetime, Dr. Johnson wanted to know “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Two centuries later, a Time essayist asks, “What was the author of the Declaration of Independence doing with a houseful of slaves?” It is naive to rediscover continually these contradictions and be shocked by them, so it is to Horsman’s credit that his book is not an attack on racism per se (he implicitly credits his reader with the assumption that racism is ugly) but an attack on its spurious basis, an imagined Anglo-Saxon superiority over other groups.

To some extent racism, like other forms of hatred, is a constant. One of the epigraphs to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is from Moritz Goldstein’s Deutsch-Judischer Parnass; it reads, “We can easily reduce our detractors to absurdity and show them their hostility is groundless. But what does this prove? That their hatred is real. When every slander has been rebutted, every misconception cleared up, every false opinion about us overcome, intolerance itself will finally remain irrefutable.” Racial hatred will never be eliminated. But it can be moderated. In a shrinking world, where so many ideologies are spent, and racial, religious, and national identifications remain the only effective bases for social coherence, racial hatred must be moderated. Searching critiques like Race and Manifest Destiny are especially valuable to this end. Far from being irrelevant to the present day, a book like this has the inestimable advantage of objectivity. Race and Manifest Destiny offers an uncorrupted view of the attitudes and behaviors that shape our own parlous times. There is nothing anti-American about this; for a person of intelligence to be anti-American makes about as much sense as for him or her to be anti-weather. But let’s face it: this is a funny country. Remember, the California “Hillside Strangler” of the 1970’s was an Ail-American boy, a friendly husband and father. Moses and Hengist and Horsa still lead us, and therefore it is our job to make sure that we know where we are being led.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading