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To Be Living At This Time: An Assessment of Values

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992


“I have not yet joined the ranks of the doomsday prophets,” Gerald Johnson wrote to his sister Kate Parham during the summer of 1978. “The twentieth century has undoubtedly gone sour—not here only, but in the rest of Western civilization as well. But it has happened before, and the world has eventually pulled out of it. I am persuaded that it will do so again—although I am not so certain that I shall live long enough to see the end of this nightmare.” As was his wont, Johnson remained optimistic as he acknowledged the “nightmare” of contemporary American civilization. As he approached his 88th birthday, he remained ever curious about what lay around the next corner and said exactly what he thought when he got there. In 1960, Adlai Stevenson had called Johnson “the critic and conscience of our time” and had thanked him “for a thousand rescues from boredom in an age when humor is suspect and conformity a virtue.” How little things have changed.

Johnson’s observations began in 1905, when he was 15, with a pseudonymous contribution to the Biblical Recorder and ultimately generated forty books: not only the biographies and histories for which he is best known but also novels and two highly regarded series for juveniles. He contributed frequently to popular and scholarly magazines, and some of his best and most representative essays appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review. He wrote for newspapers in his native North Carolina, New York, and Baltimore—his position on the Baltimore Evening Sun during its heyday was his most famous association—and he helped to establish the Department of Journalism at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Few Americans have written so extensively for such diverse forums for so many years. Now he speaks once more.

During Johnson’s ninth decade, between the appearance of Imperial Republic (1972) and his death eight years later, he began at least two books that were never completed. Among these projects was a volume discussing America’s bicentennial, which he began about 1973 and worked on intermittently for several years. He planned a short book of about 150 pages; he wrote approximately 100, and 26 survive in typescript.

More often than not, these pages prove impressive. Johnson’s immense range of vision is obvious, as is his considerable skill as a stylist. Using fragments and one-sentence paragraphs, he sometimes writes with the journalist’s informality. On the other hand, he enriches the prose with Biblical references (not conventionally religious, he seemed to know the Bible verbatim) and allusions to figures as diverse as Edmund Spenser, Voltaire, T.S. Eliot, and E.A. Robinson. As always, Johnson remains eminently readable. Moreover, this manuscript shows his complete devotion to his trade. Earlier, his work hadbeen in great demand, and he could quite literally write all day and into the night on a variety of projects. Now, he faced less enthusiastic publishers and, suffering from a variety of physical problems (heart trouble, cancer, and a stroke), found it difficult to concentrate for more than two hours. But he kept writing. To his credit and our benefit, Johnson found silence unthinkable.

Two remarks, one made directly to me by an illustrious American, the other quoted in the newspapers and ascribed to an unnamed noncommissioned officer in a foreign army, have stuck to my memory for nearly a quarter of a century and have assumed a sharper significance as the bicentennial of the republic approached.

From the first the remarks challenged interpretation, for a long time too vaguely to command attention, but recently I have been gripped by a growing suspicion that their inner significance includes the point of what is perhaps the most searching question ever put to a human being. In the Hebraic account it is the query that the Lord Yahweh put to His prophet, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” when Elijah had taken to the woods after a complete collapse of law and order at the court of King Ahab. An American who has witnessed the passage of the whole of the 20th century, to date, may reasonably put it to himself, and one who was of voting age in, say, 1950, may consider it with less urgency, perhaps, but with growing uneasiness.

One of the remarks that have stuck to my memory dates from June, 1940, the other from some date in the fifties, which is to say, neither has any direct bearing upon the troubles that have afflicted us in the last dozen years, but that does not mean that they have no bearing on our current dilemma, which is the excuse for examining them here.

The remark that was made to me directly was by Adlai Stevenson at his home in Libertyville, Illinois. I cannot fix the date precisely, but I think it was after his second defeat by Eisenhower. We were awaiting the arrival of some dinner guests who had been delayed, and we had spent most of the afternoon reviewing the political situation of this country, in which we found no satisfaction whatever. Stevenson was pacing up and down in front of the wide fireplace, and I was hunched on one of the two divans that flanked it when, after we had exhausted the subject he burst out, “All the same I am glad to have been living at this time.”

Curious, I thought. Why should he, of all people, find anything in the trend of events that would give him satisfaction? But at that moment someone came in, and the subject was never broached again. Yet it clung to my memory long years afterward.

The second remark is definitely dated in June 1940, and was made by a man of so little distinction that the newspapers never mentioned his name. He was a sergeant of British infantry, one of the few survivors of a regiment of Scotch Highlanders that was all but wiped out in the disastrous battle of Narvik. Questioned by reporters when he set foot on British soil again, he gave them the magnificently apposite comment., “At least there was never a dull moment.”

I have no assurance that the sergeant had ever heard of Schopenhauer, but he would have understood perfectly the philosopher’s dictum that of the two positive evils in human life, pain and boredom, boredom is by far the worse. Practically every man who has been close enough to war to come under artillery or, worse, machine-gun fire, knows what the sergeant felt—fear, of course, but a perfectly logical fear founded on a definite, comprehensible cause. There was nothing ghostly, mysterious, unpredictable about it, and by proper action plus a little luck that cause could be eliminated or neutralized. Above all, fast and vigorous action was called for, and such action largely, often entirely precludes emotion, all emotion, including fear.

I believe, therefore, that I have heard two men, in space half a world apart and in temperament and experience even more widely separated, speaking matter-of-factly with no intent or desire to prove anything or to persuade anyone, passing essentially the same judgment on the quality of life in our time. The trait common to both was courage—moral in one case, physical in the other—but in both cases the kind of courage that, recognizing fear, yet throttles hysteria and takes such measures as promise to eliminate the cause of fear. Unshaken men. Unshakable men. The elite.


The question is: why did Stevenson, indubitably a man of high intelligence, on striking a balance find in the history of our times enough of a profit to make him glad that he had endured all that he had? Why did the sergeant, unquestionably a man of high courage, see fit to rate the risk of that appalling day less worth remembering than the release from boredom that it brought? They were extraordinary men, beyond a doubt, but were they so extraordinary that their experience in our world bears no relation whatever to that of people whose intelligence is mediocre and whose experience has been commonplace? Some think not, and hold that tracing the reasons for their attitude might uncover similar conditions in our own experience. That would be profitable, for the average American today has a better excuse than Wordsworth had to long for “glimpses that would make me less forlorn.”

The danger in such an inquiry is that of drifting into a sentimental optimism as silly as Dr. Pangloss’ contention that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” It is a danger to which Americans are especially susceptible because irrational optimism at times has served us well. Without the wild extravagancies permeating Captain John Smith’s True Relation of Virginia (published 1608), it is doubtful that the Mayflower would have sailed, and still more doubtful that the great events of 1776 would have taken place at that time, if ever. Yet, although it is an energizer that has often produced great deeds, optimism when it runs into sentimentality becomes a hallucinogen as dangerous as peyote or LSD.

Let it be understood, then, that nothing in these pages should be interpreted as minimizing in the slightest degree the reality or the magnitude of the dangers that menace the very existence of the United States today. Invasion and conquest of the republic may indeed be highly improbable, but without either it could yet be stripped of its freedom, its wealth, and its power to influence the course of history, which would be in effect abolition of its national existence. History is full of such hollow shells that once were great empires—Spain after Philip II, Austria after the Seven Years War, Ottoman Turkey for its last century, Imperial China from the Opium War to Sun Yat-sen—many more that have ended, as Eliot predicted, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

The utmost contention of this book is that while it may be, the United States is not necessarily approaching that dismal end. Furthermore, if it does go in the opposite direction, the driving force will not be some avatar of George Washington, but the will and determination of a huge number of quite ordinary men. Undoubtedly, they will have a leader, but he may be some character to all appearance as commonplace as Truman appeared to be until Fate flung him into the position of supreme responsibility. The responsibility of the undistinguished is not to find or make the leader but to make sure that, when and if he does appear, he will have behind him the battalions he will need when he comes to Austerlitz.

Of course we have no assurance that this force will be ready at the crucial moment, but we have every reason to assume that it will not be ready unless a great many people have been thinking about it in advance. I don’t mean oracles and sages, but run-of-the-mine citizens, differing from their neighbors in nothing except having an unusually large measure of common sense that makes them not easily scared by ghosts and hobgoblins.

This argument is open to the objection that, if such a fund of common sense and courage is part of the political endowment of the American people, why was it not used to prevent our stumbling into the morass in which we now founder? The answer is that except to the unusually well-endowed intellectually, the process of abstract thinking is exhausting. By the time the average man has applied to his private affairs the minimum necessary to cope with them, his supply of mental energy is running pretty low, so the real attention he gives to public affairs is insufficient. Unless his batteries are recharged by some extraneous force, his attention to public affairs may be drastically insufficient, and the outcome will be a smash whose seriousness will be roughly commensurate with the length of time that the voter has been drowsing.

According to the law of probability as well as Toynbee’s philosophy of history, the time will come when the voter will drowse too long, and that will be the end of the American experiment with democracy. But whether that time is a year hence, or a century hence, or a millennium hence, any man’s guess is as good as any other man’s. All that our national history teaches us with assurance is that the best energizer of the average man’s brain is emotion, and of all the emotions wrath is probably the most effective. Finally, nothing raises the average American’s emotional temperature as high as the discovery that he has been played for a sucker.

This was really the deep damnation of Richard M. Nixon. Grant’s friends and relatives raided the Treasury recklessly, but no other place. Harding’s Ohio Gang stole money, but money only. Nixon, however, robbed us of a thing far more precious than cash—he stole our good opinion of ourselves as a nation of smart cookies and exposed us as a collection of saps who could be taken by a flim-flam gang so stupid that they could be rounded up by a plain night-watchman with no pretensions to be a sleuth.

More than that, when the Master-Mind was informed that the case was broken wide open, he did not take the elementary precaution of destroying the incriminating tapes, so sure was he that he had us under such control that we would never have the audacity to question him. That was too much. The fury of the electorate made Nixon’s impeachment by the House practically certain, and his conviction by the Senate highly probable. So he tendered his resignation and left the area, his retreat covered by a blanket pardon issued by his successor covering not only those offenses of which he was suspected but for which he had not been tried, and also any others of which he might have been guilty, but which as yet were not suspected.

It was assuredly the most grotesque episode in our national history, and if it turns out to be the final one, which is not yet determined but certainly possible, posterity will add a third to Eliot’s pair of national endings—not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a snicker and rather an obscene one.

While Johnson was still president this eventuality was foreseen, in part, by a woman whose son, a recent graduate of West Point and a lieutenant in the regular army, had been killed in action in Vietnam. This woman wrote that in any circumstances the agony would have been the same, but it was an agony that millions of American women have had to endure since 1776, and if they could, she could; the drop of gall in her cup that she found unbearable was the suspicion that her son had died, not for human freedom, but “in order that a vainglorious politician might strut upon the stage of history.”

History has proved the woman wrong on two counts: first, not one but three politicians were heavily involved and, second, not one of them strutted. Kennedy, least guilty of the trio, was blasted off the stage; Johnson slunk off, and Nixon scuttled off while his stand-in held the bloodhounds of the law in leash. But she was not wrong about that bitterest drop of gall, for even those of us who have suffered no personal bereavment have had to swallow it—and gag.

Moreover, if the more dismal possibility becomes a probability and then an actuality—that is to say, if the series of national disgraces subsumed under the generic name of Watergate does prove to be the opening of the final scene in the last act of the tremendous drama whose curtain first rose at Philadelphia two hundred years ago—it is likely to be a long time before any other nations experiment with sovereignty of the people as boldly as we did. If we failed with so much in our favor, why should more heavily handicapped peoples cherish any hope of success?

Yet the case is not closed. The American still has an option, one that he has exercised repeatedly in times past and with notable, if temporary, success. It is to abandon the romantic view of ourselves and the world popularized by Homer nearly 30 centuries ago in favor of the factual narrative introduced but never really popularized by Thucydides five centuries later. In other words, what is indispensable is a reversion from romance to reality.

We did it in 1776 when we flatly trampled upon the divine right of kings, and again in 1787 when we rejected the rhapsodizing of the school of Rousseau in favor of the prosaic-argument of Locke and Montesquieu, again in 1828 when we dethroned King Caucus, a bastard monarch composed of members of Congress who arrogated to themselves the right to choose candidates for president and to dictate the policies of those elected. The most revolutionary incident of the kind was in 1863, when a president on his own authority wiped the crime of slavery out of the Constitution, but hardly less revolutionary was the act of 1876, when we hauled down the Bloody Shirt and replaced it with the flag of the Union as the national ensign.

In the 20th century we have witnessed the anomalous spectacle of three leaders, each of a decidedly dictatorial temperament, heading successful movements to rescue the sovereignty of the people from freebooters—in this century more often economic than political—who had absconded with it. They were the two Roosevelts and Wilson. The effect of their combined efforts was, in Wilson’s words, “to release the generous energies of our people”—not completely, but to an appreciable extent.

Not one of these steps has been retraced. The legislation embodying them has frequently been partially circumvented, largely by the efforts of ingenious shysters, but not all of the advance has been lost, and the summation represents very considerable progress toward making democracy a viable form of government.

But as the defenses have been strengthened the pressure upon them has increased with the passage of time, the increase of world population, and the increased potency of scientific technology. It is by no means certain that the modern American still has strength to withstand them, but the question is moot, for the alternatives are to withstand or to vanish as a participant in sovereignty. As the original Dupont de Nemours—old Pierre-Samuel, father of the gunpowder-maker—put it to his friend Thomas Jefferson in a somewhat similar crisis, “We are but snails, and we have to climb the Andes. By god, then, let’s climb!”


“We, the people of the United States” are the opening words of the Preamble to the Constitution. It closes with the words “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

“We, the people”—no other power is invoked, or even mentioned not, as extreme pietists have contended, out of disrespect for other powers but on account of the stated indifference of deity to what they were doing. Many members of the Constitutional Convention were stout Anglicans, and even the Dissenters accepted as authoritative the King James version of the English Bible, including the injunction of Jesus of Nazareth (reported by Matthew, Mark, and Luke in substantially the same words), “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Centuries before the Convention met, the kings had dethroned Caesar and appropriated his possessions. Eleven years earlier Americans had dethroned the king and appropriated his possessions with one exception—we claimed no divine right of rulership, believing that both king and Caesar rested their claim on a grant that was false because issued by false gods.

As he spoke, Jesus had in his hand a coin issued by Caesar, so his words referred directly to money, specifically tax money. But government is a mundane affair; all its interests are things that belong to Caesar, and in the republic “we, the people” have been Caesar for two hundred years; therefore, ours is the ultimate power as regards all governmental transactions. So much is clear enough, but who are “we”?

Most certain it is that the word never included every human being within the jurisdiction of the United States. In 1776 women, children, slaves, lunatics, criminals, and “Indians not taxed” were excluded by law from participation in government, and others were excluded by social and other extra-legal pressures. John Adams estimated that in 1776 only one-third of the American colonists favored independence. Another third were less afraid of the familiar tyranny of the King than they were of “mob rule” which they were assured democracy would be, while the remaining third favored nothing except betting on the winner.

For obvious reasons, no precise statistical measurement of people’s temperamental bent is possible. Such evidence as exists, however, suggests that Adams’ estimate is not far off the mark today, which means that such popular government as exists is exercised by approximately one-third of the electorate—that is, the qualified voters. These are the ruling class of the republic, but they cannot be identified and listed as the nobility and gentry because on no two successive issues of first importance does the same third make the decision.

This is the case because none but a genuine sage or, if you prefer, a very eminent philosopher views realistically every problem with which humanity perforce must struggle. One capable of turning a cold, clear eye on any political or economic issue may be monumentally prejudiced where a religious issue is concerned, and more than one mathematician of worldwide fame has argued like Simple Simon on a question involving ethics or esthetics.

However, in the history of the republic thus far, at every crisis definitely involving survival or subversion of the sovereignty of the people, the realistic third have been able to carry with them enough of the people of no opinion to constitute a majority, and popular sovereignty has survived in posse if not always in esse.

This tends to madden strict logicians who argue, logically, that it portends the eventual death of democracy as a system of government. So it does, but what of it? Far more massive evidence portends the eventual end of the world, possibly as a cloud of cosmic dust, probably as a blackened cinder, such as astronomers have already detected floating around in the cosmos. In either case, it will have long been incapable of supporting any kind of life as we know it; therefore, it has no significance for humanity.

Experience has taught us that in the political realm any prediction extended as far as ten years is risky and beyond twenty years almost worthless. Nevertheless, a certain amount of predicting we must risk in order to adjust to the shifting conditions of civilized life. The obvious course is to make adjustments to new conditions rapid and easy. But this requires development of a highly realistic view of the state of the nation today, not as it was as recently as the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower—some would say as late as the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. But this requires a shift in our habits of thought seldom, if ever, to be effected except under extreme pressure such as is generated by war, or an equivalent of the Hoover Depression, or the Watergate scandals.

Pessimists contend that this is meaningless because the effect produced by such pressures is transitory, fading out completely with the death of the generation that felt the pressure. But they are wrong. It is true that every burst of energy stimulated by these catastrophes has disappointed its most enthusiastic supporters, but that is because the most enthusiastic reformers are usually romantics who characteristically seize upon a good idea and carry it to such an unrealistic extreme that they convert it into its opposite, a thoroughly bad idea. This chills the enthusiasm of all men of sense, and in the case of one who has only limited sense turns him violently against the whole movement. In addition, every large movement toward improving democracy as a form of government is attended by a cohort of suborners whose function is to persuade lawmakers drafting the enabling legislation to insert somewhere a clause of such virulent mendacity as to turn the measure into a theft, not a safeguard, of the people’s right, and combing such snakes out of the grass often leads to disgust with the whole movement.

Nevertheless, the historical record shows that in spite of all the revulsions and betrayals, each of the great popular uprisings has not been reversed but has shown some accretion of the people’s power to retain and enjoy liberty under law.

In the 20th century, in particular, as was noted above, from the first Roosevelt’s Square Deal, through Wilson’s New Freedom, to the second Roosevelt’s New Deal, the plain American has seen strengthened, rather than reduced, his ability to use the powers of government to serve his needs.


This of course proves nothing except that in the past we have had enough intellectual honesty and moral vigor—not, if you please, moral integrity and intellectual vigor—to set a limit beyond which myths and narcotics will not be tolerated as ordinary implements in the operation of the governmental system. But it does offer, not proof, but at least a suggestion that we retain enough realism to deal fairly successfully with the complex of problems in which we are now ensnarled. The basis of that hope is the fact that while our current difficulties present new aspects, they rest on the same basis as the old ones with which we have dealt somewhat successfully. That basis is our powerful and apparently ineradicable tendency to permit the fabrication of imagery to seep from the realm of poetry, where its value is incontestable, into the prose of statute-books and manuals of operation of commerce, industry, and finance, where it is thoroughly pernicious.

A classical example is the dictum of Louis Blanc, stated in 1848 and quoted by Marx, Lenin, practically every other Communist, and half the Socialist writers, as a summary of ideal justice: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It is, on the contrary, the very solid foundation of most injustice in that it is a doctrine of passivity, the erasure of individual responsibility, which is to say, of liberty. Ability is not wealth, nor is it certainly the primary source of wealth. The primary source is the will and the power to use one’s ability.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
 Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
 And kept on drinking.

From Miniver nothing was to be obtained to serve any man’s need, not even his own. Most certainly, nothing was to be obtained from Miniver to serve the need of a man whose necessity is created by his own lethargy—physical, mental, moral, or all three. However, such characters are genuine anomalies, to be found at every social level, but never numerous enough to impose a crushing burden upon the active. William Graham Sumner’s “Forgotten Man” about to be crushed to earth under the burden of supporting the lazy and stupid is as fictitious as Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight doing battle with the Dragon for three days and two nights. What does bear down on the sensible and industrious, but not affluent, is the necessity of providing for the vast number of willing and able workers deprived by advancing technology of any opportunity to support themselves. These unfortunates are victims of the romantics at both ends of the scale. The sweet ones are stuffing the jobless with the fiction that they are innocent victims of a colossal and detestable conspiracy concocted by remorseless slave-drivers at the top of the economic pyramid. The sour romantics, on the other hand, preach the doctrine that the unemployed are not victims of the economic system, but congenital bums to whom any kind of labor is utterly repellent and who choose to live on handouts pending the coming of that Utopia that some cynic has described as providing “two hours’ work a day, free liquor and no hell.”

Both can produce solid evidence to sustain their contentions. The advance of technology is attended by injustice, some of it preventable. Society is infested with bums, not all explicable by the abuse of alcohol, narcotics, or infantile subjection to irascible parents. It is not the existence of these beings but their number in relation to the whole population that constitutes the weight of their presence upon the consciousness, or on the conscience of the average citizen. Appropriate medical treatment can reduce the number of the congenitally incompetent, and correctly planned and managed institutions can eliminate the danger to society of the rest.

But the victims of a malfunctioning economy are vastly more numerous, and the psychiatrists and neurologists can do nothing at all about them. In the United States we have decided, rather arbitrarily, that as long as the ratio of the unemployed doesn’t rise above 4 or 5 percent no serious disturbances of the social and political peace are to be apprehended. But, when it touches 10 percent, a certain amount of trouble is virtually assured, and if the rate goes much above 10 percent it will mean big trouble that may easily rise into a catastrophe.

The responsibility of the average citizen in relation to this vast and infinitely complicated problem cannot be defined with precision, but its weight can be and is felt by any man with even a rudimentary conscience. It involves the application of such common sense as one may possess to any economic program that may be presented for the voters’ approval, whether by Congress, by the administration, or by some organization purporting to represent the consumer. Sad experience has taught us that such schemes ordinarily fall into one of three classifications: (a) an efficient adjustment of our old methods and ideas to new and different conditions; or (b) a pipe-dream of some well-meaning but fuzzy-minded theorist, in other words, a romantic; or (c) a gold brick, that is, the scheme of some operator with a honeyed tongue and a larcenous mind to persuade the electorate to vote favors to his private interest and thus to the detriment of the public.

No man alive is wise enough to sort these out infallibly. We are all taken in at one time or another by one scheme or another. But any man with intelligence enough to hold a job above the simplest pick-and-shovel level can spot some of them and can usually spot more than half of the phonies. This will be sharply challenged by the more pessimistic observers of public affairs, but the proof of its accuracy is the survival of the republic. There have been many occasions when only a burst of common sense on the part of the voters has pulled us out of a tail-spin that might easily have ended in a crash from which there would have been no survivors—for a slave population cannot be counted as survivors of a system dedicated to self-rule.

It may be plausibly argued that none of the economic crises of the past have subjected the intelligence of the voters to as severe a strain as the present one, for the economy of the United States today is more intricately involved with the economies of all other nations than it ever was before. That is a reality that cannot be denied. But who pretends, except some politician who thinks he has to pretend in order to hold his job, that the Big Rock-Candy Mountain is just around the corner? We have as good a chance as our fathers and their fathers had, and the American who demands more is not a competent citizen of this peril-surrounded republic.


The minority of the electorate intellectually capable of and temperamentally inclined to serious thinking about the future of the republic is confronted, it must be admitted, with one difficulty that its predecessors escaped. That is the recent intricate involvement of our political system with all the existing systems of all the world.

This has all but obliterated any precise distinction between domestic and foreign affairs in our governmental system. The involvement is attributable to our choice only in a minor degree. Mainly it is due to the increased weight of the United States in the international balance of power. But because it was our deliberate choice only to a minor degree, an appalling number of Americans believe that it exists only to a minor degree. This is equivalent to an assumption that what we do not wish to happen doesn’t happen, perhaps the wildest flight into the irrational of all our hallucinations, and one that has cost us blood and money in appalling quantities.

It is plain enough that the ordinary private citizen of the United States cannot exert any measurable influence on the conduct of international affairs. It is simply that his individual influence is not perceptible until it is multiplied by a million or two, but when it is, its effect is at the other extreme—too great, not too small, to be subject to accurate measurement.

The most recent spectacular proof of that is the closing of the Vietnam adventure. The Pentagon and the State Department would still be playing happily with their lethal toys had not a sufficient number of plain citizens at last become convinced that the business had been nonsensical from the start, based on the insane assumption that by butchering Vietnamese we could scare the Russians into reasonable conduct. We did indeed scare them, but not into being reasonable—far from it. We drove them into the irrational course of adding to their nuclear armament, already big enough to kill us all once, more than enough to kill the corpses all over again. We have replied by piling up enough nuclear bombs to wipe out the Russians eight times.

And this was sold to the country as effective national defense!

By 1968 the farce had become too hideously blatant to be endurable, and Nixon was elected on his promise to end it. But once more the electorate was sold a gold brick. The voters attached no attention to the fact that he did not promise peace unqualified, but “peace with honor,” under his own definition of “honor” which implied carrying the war into Cambodia and Laos. Three years and eleven months later he was still dithering, and American soldiers were still dying, but just a week before the election Kissinger announced flatly, “Peace is at hand,” and once more—but as it proved, for the last time—the rubes rushed to the polls to be sold Brooklyn Bridge, and in such numbers as to give Nixon the largest popular majority ever.

But when, immediately after the election, Nixon tore up the agreement that Kissinger and Le Due Tho had negotiated and hurled the B-52’s against Hanoi in the “Christmas offensive,” he passed the limit of American credulity. Not two months earlier a high-ranking Air Force officer had explained to newspaper men that we had not used B-52’s against Hanoi because their size and relatively slow maneuverability made them too vulnerable to Soviet-made SAM missiles. That statement was horribly proven when in 16 days we lost a hundred-odd airmen and 18 B-52’s (the Pentagon’s figures; Hanio claimed 37 hits but admitted that 19 made it back to friendly territory) over North Vietnam. Then Kissinger was ordered back to the conference table where he and Le Due Tho wrote what was acclaimed as a new agreement, although every significant clause remained substantially what it had been in the first draft.

This was Nixon’s “peace with honor” that strained the credulity even of the American people, so that it got a markedly sour reception, especially as the fumes escaping from the lid clamped on the Watergate burglary were already beginning to pollute the atmosphere of Washington.

The resistance of the romantics was powerful, but the evidence was so overwhelming that more than the necessary million or two realists recognized at last how they had been led by the nose, and their cumulative wrath was enough to prod a mulishly reluctant Congress into action. Cynics suspected at the time that the Senate investigation was entrusted to Senator Sam Ervin, of North Carolina, because he was assumed, quite correctly, to be a hard-shelled conservative. Some of Nixon’s most determined supporters also assumed, quite incorrectly, that Ervin was a simple-minded rustic hopelessly incapable of coping with the battalion of high-powered and high-priced jurisconsults—the term “shysters” is commonly applied to the same type only on lower levels of both power and price. This was really an inexcusable error since Ervin, as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in North Carolina, had long since made a reputation as a constitutional lawyer highly rated by the bar.

But the accumulated errors had finally compelled the realists to think seriously about the federal government, and when they did it became clear that, if Congress refused to act, the next election would be a massacre of sitting members regardless of party. So Nixon was ejected, and several dozen of his freebooters were convicted on criminal charges and either fined or imprisoned. In other words, the wrath of the hard-headed realists in the country, when it is really aroused, is still potent.

There was also the consideration that the corruption that had permeated the White House and invaded various government services had not penetrated the courts far enough to make the judiciary a pliant tool of the executive. Indeed, the stupidest of the White House gang’s many stupid errors was the assumption that the judges, or at least those on courts below the Supreme Court, could be wheedled or bullied into meekly obeying presidential orders even when they were flagrant violations of the Constitution. That, it must be admitted, was due to the care of most of the earlier presidents in choosing learned lawyers who were also honorable men for elevation to the federal bench. But it was, after all, the wrath of an aroused electorate that brought the startling number of cases before the judges, thereby furnishing a test of their quality.


Still, no careful student of the state of the nation will accept the ejection of an unfit president from the office he had disgraced as proof that we still possess the qualities essential to our survival even through the remaining years of the 20th century. It is indeed probable that something calling itself a republic under the name of the United States will still exist in A. D. 2000, and perhaps beyond. But that the community so called will actually be a society of free men governing themselves, is far more open to question.

You can’t find figures to prove it, but there is very convincing evidence that the total of all the damage inflicted upon this country by out-and-out villains, from Benedict Arnold down, has been a mere flea-bite by comparison with that inflicted by well-meaning romantics. This is not confined to fanatical humanitarians. The fanatical dogs-in-the-manger are as destructive, with the additional evil that the harm they do strikes faster and is more often irremediable, as far as the victim is concerned.

Therefore, the traditional new broom that sweeps clean cannot be relied on to accomplish much toward reducing the mess in which the economic system—the world system, as well as our own—found itself as the last quarter of the 20th century began. This puts beyond reach of the ordinary citizen any action, even combined action, that will produce instant results, even if you construe “instant” as meaning, in this connection anything up to, say, 18 months. The ponderous machinery of the world economy moves slowly, but it moves, which is why a wrench thrown into the gears will produce terrific, even if long-delayed results. Furthermore, any readjustment of the economic system that moves toward a more just distribution of the real, not the fake, Gross National Production is bound to blister those people who are profiting by the existing injustices, and they will fight furiously any attempt to compel them to retreat. The damage that such a battle will do to the country cannot be estimated in advance.

On the other hand, not all extortionists are millionaires. We have had a chilling demonstration of that fact in the recent history of Great Britain when a blindly stupid Labour leadership repudiated the necessary connection between pay and production and thereby accelerated the national regression toward the brink of ruin. American labor has not to date been led to believe that a sound economy can be based on more pay for less production, but scattered instances indicate a tendency toward accepting that heresy, and it is something that every realistic thinker must bear in mind.

In short, the function of the self-governing American is not to assume duties that devolve upon experts—for instance, drafting legislation to correct the most obvious injustices. There are men who have spent years acquiring the skill necessary to do that. Their services are available to our elected representatives, and the plain citizen’s part is to demand that the experts be instructed to frame the statutes in a way that will serve essential justice. When it appears that one of them has the opposite effect, this plain citizen must demand an explanation of why the writers were given reason to suppose that such a crooked statute was desired and, with redoubled insistence, why the legislative body concerned passed a law in such distorted form.

Insistence, the persistent insistence that convincing answers be given to both questions, is the most effective bar to the adoption of unjust laws.

The defect—too often the fatal defect—in this process is that the individual can never be sure that his persistence had any effect, and therefore is strongly inclined to relax before the effect is achieved. This is the factor that makes democracy by far the most difficult form of government ever devised. In fact, in our own case it has never worked continuously but only by fits and starts. The Federalists came very close to abolishing it in 1814; the Caucus did in effect suspend it by 1824; the effort to split the Union in 1861, if it had succeeded, would almost certainly have ended the experiment with democracy, and Wilson, in 1913, started a tremendous reconstruction job which the second Roosevelt resumed in 1933, but had to abandon in some important respects when the world was overwhelmed by war six years later.

Revisionist—which usually means pessimistic—historians in recent years have emphasized that each of these popular revolts fell short of its main objective, and the failure, in the revisionist view, is the significant part of the incident. But it is as logical to emphasize the fact that each succeeded in part, and, above all, to note that each effort, although partially aborted, yet achieved some accretion of the people’s power to govern themselves.

This assertion is supported by abundant documentary evidence. The moot question, the one to which there is no conclusive answer, is this: have the incidents that have increased the people’s power added as significantly to their disposition to govern themselves?

There is no convincing answer to that for the simple, but sufficient reason that no two of the successive incidents were dealt with by the same people. They were sufficiently far apart, some 20 to 35 years, to make it certain that in the course of nature a large proportion of the men who dealt with one crisis, would be dead before the next one arose. Septuagenarians’ lives span the whole of the 20th century, but they are too few to effect anything approaching a perceptible coloration of public opinion today.

There is, however, one constant that runs through the series including our present large bundle of troubles. Each of the vigorous efforts of the people to strengthen their grip on their own sovereignty was in part, and usually a very large part, an emotional reaction, and the prime mover among the driving emotions was wrath. In dealing with the American people a suave and supple rogue can get away with almost anything because the people do not perceive the contempt behind his fawning. But if the mask slips and the people suddenly realize that they are being played for suckers, their fury is the irresistible force before which no object is immovable. Ask Nixon.

This is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind in his comparison of Shays’ Rebellion, in 1786, to the effect in the political world of storms in the natural world. This gave Jefferson’s foes a chance to accuse him of favoring governmental subversion by force and violence, whereas he had clearly stated that what he favored was the repeal of bad laws, an action analogous to the clearing of the air effected by a storm.

The plain citizen, therefore, has no alibi regarding any problem of politics, even one as esoteric as our economic policy in relation to the rest of the world. The plain citizen simply has no alibi, period. “We the people” did “ordain and establish” that scheme of things, and we, the people, are responsible for the results.

Presidents, members of the Cabinet and of the Congress, and Justices of the Supreme Court are responsible for details of the government’s structure and for its efficient functioning, but responsibility for the overall design rests squarely on the shoulders of the people qualified to vote, and it can’t be shifted to any other shoulders. The most dangerous heresy that has penetrated our thinking is the delusion that responsibility for the kind of government the republic has can be shifted. It is encouraged by all ambitious men who attain high office in the government—inevitably so, for willingness to assume responsibility is a necessary qualification of any high official who is worthy of his place. It is accepted with alacrity by small men who are unwilling to accept any responsibility whatever. But it is not accepted by that segment—on the whole, rather a grim segment—of the population with resolution enough to face any fact, including the hardest. It is not accepted, that is to say, by realists.

It is as Le Maistre said—nations have the kind of government they deserve. So if the structure that we, the people, erected in 1787 collapses, it is idle to blame the law of gravitation. The blame lies upon the inheritors who have failed to keep the fabric in repair or to brace it to withstand strains from a new direction. We look back with awe—as well we may—on a convention whose members included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Rufus King, Roger Sherman, Robert and Gouverneur Morris, John Dickinson, James McHenry and the Pinckneys, both C. and C.C. We despair of again assembling such a galaxy of masters of statecraft, especially when we remember that, far away but intensely interested, were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

It is easy to believe that the odds against once ever again assembling a group of equal brilliance may be a million to one, but that is irrelevant. We don’t have to perform any such miracle, for all we face is a repair job, not the necessity of designing and erecting a completely new structure a pattern for which exists nowhere in the world. True it is that a first-rate repair job is often more expensive than the original structure, but that kind of calculation is relative. We have vastly more money available than the Americans of 1787 had, which may countervail the fact that statecraft among us is in shorter supply.

There is no alibi. And the significant fact is that seeking one where none exists is the straightest of roads to ruin.


In these pages, and throughout his canon, Johnson uses a theater metaphor to convey the drama of history. He paints his heroes and villains with broad strokes, and it is easy to distinguish them. Intelligent and articulate, Adlai Stevenson plays his part with quiet dignity. But discussing Vietnam— Johnson was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the war—he snorts that Kennedy “was blasted off the stage, Johnson slunk off; and Nixon scuttled off while his stand-in held the bloodhounds of the law in leash.”

Had Johnson lived through the 1980’s and into the present, new villains would have taken the stage. Ever an eloquent spokesman for America’s adversary culture, Johnson would most probably have criticized Reagan and Bush for a number of the same reasons that he had censured Eisenhower decades before: misplaced priorities and a dearth of vision, too great a belief in the corporate mentality and too little concern for life’s unfortunates. In all his presidential elections, Johnson voted Democratic—first choosing Wilson in 1912 and last selecting Carter in 1976—and 1 doubt very much that he would have changed this pattern.

However probable this scenario, it is still speculative and hardly the reason why Johnson remains so topical in our current time of troubles. With considerable skill, this manuscript praises and censures famous men. But it is far more for Johnson’s commentary upon the common citizen, that “plain American” whom he celebrates and exhorts, that these pages speak so forcefully to us today. A Southerner all too familiar with the Lost Cause, Johnson scoffs at romanticism; on the other hand, he casts out the doomsayers. As usual, he speaks unashamedly as a moralist.

Know the past, he challenges his common reader, but don’t be enslaved by it. Be reassured by history, for it teaches that there is nothing new under the sun. Recognize the perils of democracy, but forever cherish it, for the American experiment is the most humane ever undertaken. Tell the truth plainly. Know right from wrong, and don’t hesitate to label them as such. Accept responsibility for the state of your native land; don’t complain and make excuses. Never forget the bravery and vision of the founding fathers, but understand that the American dream of freedom has been corrupted by greed. “We have as good a chance as our fathers and their fathers had,” Johnson remarks pointedly, “and the American who demands more is not a competent citizen of this peril-surrounded republic.”

Endings invite analogy, and Johnson’s efforts during his difficult final decade make me remember Proust’s poignant image for the elderly clergyman at the end of The Past Recaptured: he “advanced with difficulty, trembling like a leaf, upon the almost unmanageable summit of his eighty-three years, as though men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until they become taller than church steeples. . . .” Certainly, Johnson trembled at times, but he never stopped advancing. From the immense height of his years—as a boy, he talked with an uncle who had ridden with Wheeler’s cavalry; as an old man, he saw men land on the moon—he evaluated the past, assessed the present, and speculated, with studied optimism, about the future of his native land. America, he remarks here in a homey analogy, needs only a “repair job.”

I would like to thank Kathryn Johnson Sliger, Johnson’s daughter and the executrix of his estate, for her kind permission to quote from his correspondence and to publish this manuscript. It is housed in the Baptist Historical Collection in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University. I am grateful to John Woodard, Myrtle Lytle, and Francis Haber for their expert and generous assistance during my examination of the papers there. I have not cut Johnson’s manuscript, but I have made a few silent emendations.


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