America’s National Identity

He who would endeavor to fix the personality of America in one eternal, unchangeable pattern not only understands nothing of how a personality is created, but comprehends little of how this nation has come along this far…. He who would fix the pattern of decision by confining the American choice to one and only one mode of response—whether this be in politics, diplomacy, economics, literary form, or morality itself—such a one, in the light of our history, is the “truly Un-American.”

—Perry Miller (1967)

Perry Miller (1905-1963) is the great historian of American destiny (not to be confused with so-called “American exceptionalism,” the idea that we are a “second Israel,” contracted with Jehovah to rule the world). Miller traced the development of our national identity from the seventeenth-century Puritans in New England through the eighteenth century, well into the nineteenth century, with profound implications for subsequent centuries. He appears to have read virtually everything by or about America in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and he died trying to do the same for the nineteenth century; but he got as far as the Civil War, which I would say is where our history actually ended. Perry Miller produced two volumes of The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and From Colony to Province. But it is the second volume’s narrative history for which Miller claimed that it constitutes “a sort of working model for American history.”

But it is Miller’s The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War, one of the most extraordinary books of the twentieth century, that is so critically relevant for us today. There really is no substitute for Miller’s works; everything he wrote impinges on American identity, politics, and culture; but this book in particular is a “must read” for anyone who wishes to understand this country. For his narrative chronicles how the Revivals that swept America from 1804 to 1860 fused together aspirations of the legal mentality, technological impetus, and corporate culture within Romanticism’s Holy Grail of Perfection, the Sublime, as America was wrenched from an agricultural to an industrial society where wealth was already centered in corporations.

Regarding the quote at the top of this blog entry: Who is it that in 2019 is trying to fix America’s personality “in one eternal, unchangeable pattern,” to “fix the pattern of decision by confining the American choice” in politics, diplomacy, economics, literary form, and even morality itself to one and only one mode of response? Is it Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamela Harris? Or is it the supranational, globalist, corporate-driven, extremist, conservative rightwing of both major parties and whatever other ideological affiliation (Libertarian, Independent, Nativist), but especially and strenuously spearheaded by the GOP? rrr

The prefatory quote from Perry Miller suggests that every ideological fixation is Un-American, in which case, on the basis of our history, America is, or ought to be, opposed to every ideology.

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