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The Liquidation of an Ideal

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

The Epic of America. By James Truslow Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.00.

To write in one volume of moderate size an essay dealing with the whole period of American history, and to do it in such a way as to give the impression that it is a history of the United States, is an achievement of some note. In “The Epic of America,” Mr. Adams has accomplished this in the same finished way that the history-reading public has become accustomed to in his New England studies and in his numerous essays. But he has done more than that. He has written an historical essay—not by any stretch of the imagination a history—that is of the highest value and importance.

Of necessity such a volume must be primarily devoted to interpretation rather than to narrative, but the author’s power of condensation is such that he has spun no mere tenuous thread of narrative upon which to hang his interpretation, but has woven a very substantial fabric out of the more significant events and movements of our national history. If it has been done better in short space, I am not aware of it. The reader feels no sense of loss at what is omitted; there is, on the contrary, a sort of completeness about the whole story which is satisfying to a high degree.

Throughout the story, as a motif, runs what Mr. Adams calls “the American dream,” the ideal for which the mass of men strove, “the hope of a better and freer life, a life in which a man might think as he would and develop as he willed.” Forming at the time of settlement, inchoate and unexpressed though the aspiration was, “the common man had dreamed it in 1776, and hoped he had brought it into being. After a quarter of a century of uneasiness over its passing he stirred himself and sought to recapture it under Jefferson.” So in the election of Jackson he made another effort to realize it.

Mr. Adams believes that Lincoln headed a similar revolt of the common man in 1860; but the evidence is against him, the administration of Lincoln and its policies doing more to render hopeless the American dream than anything that has yet happened in American history. The Populist revolt of the ‘nineties was motivated by the dream as well as by economic protest, and the last attempt of the common man to extricate himself from the octopus of Hamiltonian practice came with the election of Woodrow Wilson, who in his inaugural spoke with “the authentic voice of the great American democracy.” “Here once more was the prophet speaking of the American dream, of that hope of a better and richer life for all the masses of humble and ordinary folk who made the American nation.” “Wilson gave once more to the people . . . a vision of nobility and importance in their life and destiny that none save Washington, and Jefferson, and Lincoln had yet been able to kindle for them.”

Notable also is Mr. Adams’s interpretation of certain American characteristics. No slave to the doctrine of the frontier, he nevertheless sees its fundamental importance in the shaping of America and Americans. He sees its influence in developing “that self-confidence which breathes a belief that we know our own business better than anybody else”; in the glorification of such qualities as “aggressiveness, self-assertion, and a certain unteachableness”; in the raising of money-making “to the moral plane of a virtue in itself”; in the growth, like “a cancer that ate deep into the vitals of our life,” of that “lawlessness of mind which from colonial days has given the American the habit of deciding for himself what laws he would or would not obey”; in the breeding of such a contempt for anything not utilitarian as to cause culture to be dropped overboard as weighty and excess baggage in a grueling contest for economic success. The same influence developed in Americans restlessness under criticism, a dislike verging on hatred of the critic and the critical mind, a strong suspicion of independent thinking, and the exaltation of the booster as the ideal type of constructive citizen.

In discussing these same unpleasant national characteristics Mr. Adams advances an interesting theory. He expresses the belief that while almost every man who emigrated from Europe to America, from old settlements to newer, from East to West, showed courage, hard work, and ability, he showed also a certain lack of courage when he decided that things had got too much for him “at home,” and that he could no longer remain, that he could not fight through to success where he was. In other words, they were men who preferred the “physical discomforts and political simplifications of the wilderness to their native land and its insistent problems.” This he feels has bred a tendency to slip out from under a situation rather than to think and to fight it through. Emigration, too, bred in Americans egotism, belief in their own vast superiority over other men elsewhere, even in other parts of America. “The oppressed or the failures who suddenly rise to power or success are much more apt to feel their own importance and inflict their own views on others than those who have always sat in the seats of the mighty.” It bred, too, that sympathy for the “under dog,” without reference to facts, which “has colored our attitude towards criminals and politicians.”

From the standpoint of accuracy the volume is open to criticism on strikingly few counts. Several examples of slips may be noted here. It is scarcely correct to say that the Constitution was submitted directly to the people, even though the same sentence adds that conventions were called to consider it. The old story of Jefferson’s political and philosophical debt to France is repeated, although a firsthand familiarity with Jefferson, or a second-hand one through Chinard, reveals no such indebtedness. The admission of Maine as a free state was not a part of the Missouri Compromise. The legislature of South Carolina did not pass the ordinance of secession, nor yet a “resolution of secession.” I think Mr. Adams unfair to Polk; but that, perhaps, is a matter of opinion. Still, I find myself wishing that, while engaged in the mighty task of debunking New England, he might have discovered that the New England view of Polk needed similar treatment.

And finally I venture to express my intense objection to the constant, labored, and often irrelevant interpolation of “Ol’ Man River” into the discussion. The interpretation is so finely done that it ought not to be thus cheapened.

Space forbids the quotation of the many temptingly brilliant touches characteristic of the work. But in this year of memorial tribute I cannot refrain from including this worthy estimate of Washington.

In the travail of war and revolution, America had brought forth a man to be ranked with the greatest and noblest of any age in all the world. There have been greater generals in the field and statesmen in the cabinet in our own and other nations. There has been no greater character. When we think of Washington, it is not as a military leader, nor as executive or diplomat. We think of the man who by sheer force of character held a divided and disorganized country, together until victory was achieved, and who, after peace was won, still held his disunited countrymen by, their love and respect and admiration for himself until a nation was welded into enduring strength and unity. . . . Without him the cause would have been irretrievably lost, and the thunders of the orators would have rumbled long since into forgetful silence. When the days were blackest, men clung to his unfaltering courage as to the last firm ground in a rising flood. When, later, the forces of disunion in the new country seemed to threaten disruption, men again rallied to him as the sole bond of union. Legacy to America from these troubled years, he is, apart from independence itself, the noblest heritage of all.

The book is an event. I find myself wishing that it might be read by every, American of the mental equipment sufficient to grasp the simple story and analysis of our national growth. This does not mean that, in spite of its charm, it is pleasant reading; it is quite the contrary. It is the sad story of opportunity lost again and again, of an ideal betrayed, of the dream of the common man, the hope of America, best voiced by Jefferson and Wilson, lost, strangled, drowned, in the welter of materialism which marks the final triumph of Hamiltonianism over Jeffersonianism, the elevation of Mammon above God. Mr. Adams epigrammatically says, “Harding had to liquidate the war; Coolidge had quietly to liquidate the scandals of the Harding regime, and Hoover is now watching the liquidation of the ‘Coolidge prosperity’,” but that does not describe the tragedy that has come to America since November 11, 1918. In spite of it all Mr, Adams remains an optimist, even if, apparently, a somewhat doubting one. Neither his story nor his interpretation of it gives the reader reason to believe that he is as well a prophet.


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